A Last Lecture to Remember

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Dr. David Graham’s Last Lecture featured nuggets of wisdom that only a life full of experiences can develop. At 73, Graham does not plan to retire from teaching, at least not until “students are laughing at him, instead of with him.” The many dental students whose lives he’s touched over the years hope this never happens.

Graham, a professor in the School of Dentistry for over 40 years, gave UCSF’s 2018 Last Lecture on April 11. It was the first time someone from the School of Dentistry was selected to give this distinguished talk, based on votes from the student body.

Graham showed how his own experiences during dental school shaped the kind of professor he is today – one who puts his students first.

Born in Berkeley and raised in Palo Alto, Graham lived a good portion of his youth in the Bay Area. He moved to the Philippines when his father, a geology professor at Stanford, was on his first sabbatical. Living in Quezon City for two years and witnessing the rampant poverty made him realize how fortunate many Americans were in comparison.

Joking that he liked drilling holes and taking things apart, Graham explained that he ended up taking an aptitude test to see what career would best match his interests. When the results revealed he would be good for a dental technician, he decided to pursue dentistry.

After a fun two years in Austria during his father’s second sabbatical, Graham started his undergraduate studies at the University of Redlands. He then applied to five dental schools and got accepted to all of them. He chose UCSF.

Graham attributes his empathy for his students to a meaningful experience he had as a young dental student. When he was midway through the first quarter of his first year in dental school, his father suddenly died. He left school for a short period, and when he returned, he was faced with an oral quiz. His anatomy professor was aware of Graham’s family tragedy and asked a simple question, allowing Graham to pass the quiz.

After graduating from dental school, Graham “won,” he said ironically, the national lottery and was called to military service in the Vietnam War. He worked as a dental officer in the U.S. Navy, where he had one of his first very challenging appointments. A patient whose tooth he extracted in the morning returned in the afternoon with blood all over his shirt and a shockingly low blood pressure. Graham said dealing with this experience made him mentally tough; he has not lost his mental toughness to this day.

In June 1973, Graham got out of the navy, married, bought a condo, and started private practice with a partner. When this practice didn’t succeed, he started working for two other dentists and began teaching at UCSF.

At the age of 40, Graham started his own office, where he did his own gold work in an at-home lab. When he retired three years ago, his son, a UCSF School of Dentistry graduate like himself, took over.

After a lifetime of practicing dentistry, Graham came to the conclusion that burnout is a significant challenge facing dentists. To prevent burnout, Graham recommended that people take CE courses, get in a study club, join organized dentistry, and become a teacher, among other things.

In his closing advice, Graham encouraged students to keep on learning, strive to achieve their goals, adapt to changes, and earn their patients’ trust.

Graham himself continues to learn and try new things, having recently joined his brother-in-law in building a house from scratch.