Academic dentistry leader Dr. Clifford Sturdevant dies

Sept. 12, 2008
Dr. Sturdevant was one of the first faculty members of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Dentistry.

CHAPEL HILL, North Carolina--Dr. Clifford Max Sturdevant, an leader in academic dentistry and one of the first faculty members of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Dentistry, passed away Sept. 9, 2008. Dr. Sturdevant was 90.

Dr. Sturdevant arrived at the School of Dentistry in July 1950 as one of the four founding faculty members of the newly created school. He joined the faculty with his father, Dr. Roger Sturdevant.

After the elder Sturdevant retired as the founding chairman of the department of operative dentistry, Dr. Cliff Sturdevant became the department's second chairman, serving in that role from 1959 to 1979.

Dr. Ted Roberson, who served almost four decades on the operative dentistry faculty and is now the school's director of professional relations, remembers Sturdevant coming to him when he was a fourth-year dental school student and asking him to join the faculty.

"It was a real honor that he asked me to join the faculty and gave me such opportunities throughout my career, and that I was able to follow him as the department's chair," Roberson said. "He demanded excellence and that's what he always displayed himself. He loved this dental school and this University, and he loved operative dentistry."

Dr. Sturdevant retired from the school's faculty in 1980, earning the distinction of being the school's first faculty member to retire with 30 years of service.

During his career, "Dr. Cliff," as he was known to the school community, amassed major achievements in dental research, scholarship and education.

He was one of the school's first researchers, receiving a U.S. Bureau of Standards grant to study dental materials, and also established one of the nation's first clinical research programs in operative dentistry and biomaterials at UNC in 1970.

"Many of the restorative materials and techniques in use today in operative dentistry have in some way been pioneered or evaluated by the clinical research program in operative dentistry at UNC," said Dr. Al Wilder, a professor of operative dentistry and director of clinical research in the department.

He also was the first editor and author of "The Art and Science of Operative Dentistry," which became the bestselling operative dentistry textbook worldwide.

Dr. Roberson, who is now editor for the textbook, asked the publisher to change the title to "Sturdevant's Art and Science of Operative Dentistry" to reflect Dr. Sturdevant's scholastic contribution to operative dentistry. The textbook is now in its fifth edition 40 years after its first printing in 1968 and remains an international standard.

Another example of his national contribution to dental education was his leadership within Project ACORDE (A Consortium on Restorative Dentistry Education), created in the mid-1970s to standardize operative dentistry teaching materials throughout all U.S. dental schools. He also served as president of the Academy of Operative Dentistry in 1975.

Even after Dr. Sturdevant retired in 1980, he remained deeply committed to the school's future, said Dr. Ken May, the school's vice dean and a member of the department of operative dentistry's faculty for the past 32 years.

"He was a true leader in dental education," Dr. May said. "His tenacity regarding clinical excellence and with the clinical research program was of the highest rank."

Both Drs. May and Wilder remember hearing, as UNC dental students, the much-repeated story of Dr. Sturdevant and Dr. John Brauer, the school's first dean, sometimes passing each other in the parking lot near the dental school in the middle of the night during the school's formative years--Dr. Sturdevant leaving work and Dr. Brauer coming to work.

Dr. Wilder, also a contributing author for "Sturdevant's Art and Science of Operative Dentistry," said few can equal Dr. Sturdevant's commitment to excellence in clinical dentistry.

"The clinical faculty still measures itself by his expectations," Dr. Wilder said. "His motto, which sat on his desk, was 'If it's almost right, it's wrong.' When he was kidded about this, he would smile and say it was given to him by his son, John, but the faculty and students knew there was more truth in it than humor."

Dr. Sturdevant's son, John, continues the family's commitment to operative dentistry at UNC, serving as associate professor.

Dr. Sturdevant received his DDS degree in 1943 from Atlanta-Southern Dental College, now Emory University School of Dentistry. After graduation, he served in the U.S. Army in 1943 and 1944. He returned to Emory for a full-time teaching position until he and his father received Dr. Brauer's invitation to join the founding faculty at North Carolina's first dental school.

Dr. Sturdevant is survived by his three children, Dr. John Sturdevant of Chapel Hill; Barbara Jean Andrews of Bangor, Maine; and Paula May Mercer of Richmond, Va.; and by his four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. His wife of more than 67 years, Betty, passed away March 11, 2008.

A graveside service will be held at 4:30 p.m Sept. 15 at the Chapel Hill Memorial Cemetery. Following the graveside service, a memorial service will be held at 6 p.m at Mount Carmel Baptist Church followed by a reception at the church.

For information, go to UNC School of Dentistry.

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