RSDM Celebrates 60th Anniversary

A postcard shows RSDM’s beginnings as the Seton Hall College of Medicine & Dentistry. This was the school’s first location in Jersey City.

In 1956, Anthony Volpe enrolled at Seton Hall College of Medicine and Dentistry in Jersey City. Like Volpe, one of 36 graduates in 1960, many students were veterans who enrolled with help from the GI Bill.

“A lot of us were 25 or 26. We were in the service during the Korean War,’’ said Volpe, who opened his own practice in Nutley and later went on to become head of global oral health and scientific affairs at Colgate-Palmolive.

This year, RSDM celebrates the 60th anniversary of New Jersey’s first and only dental school and its evolution over the decades.

“We started as a small private college and then become part of a major university,” said Dean Cecile A. Feldman. “Over the years, particularly as part of Rutgers University, we’ve increased our scope and reach and made tremendous advances in knowledge. Our growth has allowed us to serve more communities, not only among our patients but also within the academic and professional communities.”

Says Volpe, “We’ve built a reputation of being nationally recognized, but our school was once a small start-up.’’

When Volpe was in dental school, most dentists were men — there was only one woman graduate in 1960 — but that’s changed, too. Today, slightly more than half of RSDM’s 500 or so students are women, and several are students pursuing dentistry as their second career.

The tools of the trade have also change dramatically since 1956, says Feldman.“There used used to be belt-driven handpieces, now they’re electronic. Back then, there was no computer technology. Now we use computers to design and manufacture dental work.’’

There’s also been a shift in the academic culture, with faculty adopting a more collaborative approach to teaching and more resources for students who need help. “It’s more collegial and there is much more support. When I went to dental school here, there was no such thing as tutoring, which we have now,’’ says Dr. Kim Fenesy, senior associate dean of Student Affairs and a 1986 graduate of RSDM.

Since its opening, RSDM has changed its name five times, a series of transformations that are symbolic of the school’s growth. In 1965, it became the New Jersey College of Medicine and Dentistry after it was acquired by the state, and later, the College of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. In 1981, it was renamed the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ) before becoming part of Rutgers University in 2013. That’s when it swapped “dental school’ for “school of dental medicine” to reflect its research and clinical components.

The school now includes pioneering research in oral biology and orofacial pain and receives more than 120,000 patient visits a year. It also serves as a continuing education hub for dentists throughout the state. For alumna Anna Novais, who graduated in 2014, one of the best things about RSDM is not just its clinical reputation but the diversity of its staff, students and patients.

“I think this school prepares you to reach people from all different backgrounds,’’ says Novais. “We saw patients from a lot of different social and economic backgrounds. We developed relationships, learn how to communicate. I saw that as a great opportunity for me to give back.”