Professor Neil Jenkins

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Pioneer in academic dentistry

Few can have contributed so much to the development and maturity of academic dentistry as Neil Jenkins, the first Professor of Oral Physiology in the UK. His academic legacy is unsurpassed, if viewed in terms of the body of work from his own laboratories at Newcastle University, summed with that of the "Jenkins family" of former graduate students and colleagues.

Born in Wallasey in 1914, Jenkins discovered at school at Birkenhead Institute a passion for science. He was among the first to study for the newly established degree in Biochemistry at Liverpool University, before proceeding to Cambridge where he took his PhD under the great nutritionist Sir Gowland Hopkins, working as part of the Second World War effort on the development of the "National Loaf".

In 1945, Jenkins took up a lectureship in the Physiology Department at Newcastle Medical School, part of King's College in the University of Durham, with special responsibility for teaching dental students. This post was initially funded by the Nuffield Foundation, part of a drive supported by Lord Nuffield to develop the scientific basis of dental education and build up dental research.

Jenkins taught the whole course in Physiology and Biochemistry as well as a new series of lectures in Oral Physiology - a subject unknown in other universities. These lectures were written up as The Physiology of the Mouth (1954), covering the formation, composition and functions of the teeth, gums, saliva and dental plaque, the physiology of mastication, speech and taste, and oral effects of diet and hormones. A chapter on the "Physiological basis of dental caries" provided a succinct introduction to this important area of dental research.

The book was an immense success, being reprinted many times. It was translated into several languages, led to international renown for Jenkins, and resulted in invitations to give keynote addresses around the world. Having gone through three editions by the early 1970s it was, however, becoming out-of-date in some areas, and Jenkins embarked on a complete rewrite, with the title The Physiology and Biochemistry of the Mouth reflecting the broader basis of the new 4th edition published in 1978.

By this time, Jenkins had become Professor of Oral Physiology, and a new department had been created for him in the Dental School in the new University of Newcastle upon Tyne. His students were very privileged to be supervised by Jenkins. …