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Professor Neil Jenkins: 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 Having gone through three editions by the early 1970s it was, however, becoming out-of-date in some areas, and Jenkins embarked on a complete rewrite, with the title The Physiology and Biochemistry of the Mouth reflecting the broader basis of the new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. He was often the first to see the importance of a problem, or even a new concept, and he set his students to work on significant topics that could form the basis of a lifetime of research. He also encouraged us to follow more than one topic – so that if advances ceased temporarily in one area, we could be usefully engaged following-up another research idea.

Jenkins was a superb ideas man. He had a phenomenal memory for previous research, finding a reprint or journal unerringly from his rather unconventional stratified filing system. He was always available to discuss the latest set of results, and constantly looking to propose a new hypothesis to explain some unexpected research data.

He was not a university politician and resented time wasted in committees. However, he was a firm believer in scientists getting involved in the world outside the university. In particular, he worked tirelessly in the cause of water fluoridation, which he saw as an ideal method of correcting inequalities in health in society and, since 1969, Newcastle citizens have enjoyed the benefits of his advocacy.

Jenkins was one of only two non dentally qualified people to be awarded an Honorary Fellowship in Dental Surgery by the Royal College of Surgeons of England – the other being the Duke of Edinburgh. He was a much-admired President of the British Society for Dental Research, the British Fluoridation Society, and of the European Organisation for Caries Research. For many years he was an enlightened editor of the Archives of Oral Biology.

Neil Jenkins's retirement in 1980 was marked by a Symposium where many of his former students presented aspects of their joint research and recent findings, the proceedings being published as a Festschrift, The Environment of the Teeth (1981). We knew however that Neil would never truly retire, and he embarked on a series of visiting professorships around the world, generating much useful collaborative research in Cape Town, Chicago, Toronto, Minneapolis, Edmonton, Adelaide and Trinidad.

W.M. Edgar

George Neil Jenkins, oral physiologist: born Wallasey, Cheshire 23 October 1914; Lecturer in Physiology, Medical School, King's College Newcastle, Durham University 1945-55, Senior Lecturer, 1955-63; Professor of Oral Physiology, Newcastle University 1963-80 (Emeritus); married 1945 Olive Harvey (died 1996; one son, one daughter); died Newcastle upon Tyne 14 October 2007.