Throughout the past 100 years – the span of a single continuing lifetime for Dr. Walter Guralnick – the field of oral surgery has grown by leaps and bounds.

The year was 1916.The Boston Red Sox won the World Series for the second year in a row. The summer Olympics, to be held in Berlin, Germany, were cancelled due to the outbreak of World War I. Woodrow Wilson was re-elected for a second term as president of the United States. The first woman was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. The cost of a stamp was 2 cents. And Walter Guralnick, DMD, now chief emeritus of the Massachusetts General Hospital Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery (OMFS), was born.

Walter Guralnick, DMD,
Walter Guralnick, DMD

The year is 2016. At the age of 100, after a century of world progress and personal achievements, Dr. Guralnick still remains an active member of Mass General, where he has worked for 65 years. He comes to work four days a week, aiding Maria Troulis, DDS, MD, chief of OMFS, with her role as program director, with integration of the residency in the curriculum and fundraising.

Early Life and Military Service

Dr. Guralnick, a native Bostonian who grew up in East Boston and Roxbury, comes from a medical family. His father was a pediatrician and older brother was a general surgeon. After graduating from Boston Latin School, he graduated from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and then earned his doctor of dental medicine in 1941 from Harvard School of Dental Medicine (HSDM).

During his residency in oral surgery at Boston City Hospital, Pearl Harbor was bombed. “I can remember it very vividly,” says Dr. Guralnick. “I was up in my room when all of a sudden the radio announced what had happened. And I knew – although wars in general are a horror and one shouldn’t seek them out – I knew that I was going to go into service and I wanted to go into service, because, as they said, this was our war.”

He finished his year of residency and married his wife Betty on Jan. 1, 1942 before reporting for duty. He was assigned to an air base in North Carolina and then to the Seventh General Hospital, where he was stationed in England, France and Belgium.

Dr. Walter Guralnick (right) on the cover of a newsletter from the base where he was stationed during World War II
Dr. Walter Guralnick (right) on the cover of a newsletter from the base where he was stationed during World War II

Arrival at Mass General

“We arrived in England on Dec. 15, 1943, the day that my son, Peter, was born. So I didn’t get to see him until he was about 25 or 26 months old,” says Dr. Guralnick. “When I got home, I knew what I wanted to do. I knew I was going to do oral surgery. There weren’t that many oral surgeons in Boston at that time.”

After the war, Dr. Guralnick set up a private practice in Boston, then joined the staff of Mass General in 1951 where he served as chief of OMFS from 1966-1983. For the next 10 years he was the medical director of the Mass General operating rooms, while continuing to see patients on a consulting basis well into his 80s.

“I am retired from active surgery, that’s true,” Dr. Guralnick says, “but I am not retired from participating in the activities of the service and the hospital, working with the faculty and residents and students.”

Dental Insurance Pioneer

“In the 1950s-1960s, it was very apparent that there was no sort of insurance for dental care, so a lot of people couldn’t get care because they couldn’t afford it on their own,” says Dr. Guralnick. He sought to change that by lobbying for oral surgery insurance coverage.

With the help of a few other area oral surgeons who argued that more patients would come in for procedures if they had insurance, Dr. Guralnick fought for nearly a decade to get a bill through the state legislature. In 1966, the bill was passed and paved the way for the formation of the Dental Service Corporation of Massachusetts, which later became known as Delta Dental in 1980. Dr. Guralnick served as Delta Dental’s president for 10 years.

In addition to his leadership at Mass General, Dr. Guralnick has traveled to China more than 15 times to give lectures about topics in dentistry and oral surgery.

New Kind of Program

Although Dr. Guralnick never had a medical degree, he always believed strongly in its importance. He credits his war experience and apprenticeships with his father and brother with providing him a broader understanding of surgery, but says it was still not one that a formal education could offer.

“One of the things that I had started early on was asking the chief of medicine or the chief of surgery if my residents could rotate on their service for a period of three months, and I thought that was educationally very important. But that was just a taste,” says Dr. Guralnick. “I had always felt very strongly that you needed to do some general surgery to be adept at any kind of surgery you did. And to do general surgery, you needed to have finished the training of a physician and have a medical degree. And it wasn’t just the degree. It was the education that went with getting the medical degree.”

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Read more about how Mass General oral and maxillofacial surgeons save jaws and smiles.

Initially, HSDM offered a two-year program – and students with five or more years of experience could finish in just one year. In 1972, with Dr. Guralnick’s proposal, it was changed to a six-year program offering residents both a medical degree and an OMFS residency. Dr. Guralnick’s program was the first of its kind and today more than half of oral surgery degrees follow a similar structure.

Worldwide and Lifelong Influences

In addition to his leadership at Mass General, Dr. Guralnick has traveled to China more than 15 times to give lectures about topics in dentistry and oral surgery. He worked with colleagues in China and with the Chinese Ministry of Health to improve preventative dental care.

Among his accomplishments and countless other accolades, Dr. Guralnick was elected to the Royal College of Surgeons in England and into membership of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, both in 1996. He received the Harvard Medal in 2005 and in 2009 received the Arnold K. Maislen Award at New York University and the Gavel Prize of the Forsyth Institute. There also is an endowed professorship named for him at HSDM – the Walter C. Guralnick Professor of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery.

“In life you do what you think is important to you and is hopefully useful to others.

Throughout the past 100 years – the span of a single continuing lifetime for Dr. Walter Guralnick – the field of oral surgery has grown by leaps and bounds – from focusing only on extractions, prosthetics and cavity filling to preventative care, dental practice, research and more extensive surgery to the face, jaw and teeth. And Dr. Guralnick has made his mark on the field’s history, contributing more than his share of advances.

“In life you do what you think is important to you and is hopefully useful to others. I’ve had a long, fairly productive life. It’s been interesting,” says Dr. Guralnick. “My affection for this hospital and for the people here is very real. And I think that I am treated here so graciously by everybody, making this a very pleasant place for me to continue to be.”

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This story was first published in MGH Hotline.