Founding UCLA School of Dentistry Professor, Robert B. Wolcott, Dies

Posted on: Wednesday, 03/31/1999

Founding UCLA dentistry professor and 48-year teaching veteran Dr. Robert Bullis Wolcott died March 24 after a long battle with neck cancer. He was 84.

Wolcott joined the School of Dentistry as an original faculty member in 1962 to help the founding dean, Reidar Sognnaes, prepare the new school for its first students, the Class of '68. Under Sognnaes' and Wolcott's leadership, UCLA's reputation for excellence grew rapidly, spurring class size to jump from 27 to 96 students by 1971.

Inspired by his dentist father, Wolcott enrolled in dental school at Marquette University in Milwaukee in 1937, working three jobs between semesters to make ends meet. He attended to patients in a mental sanitarium, shoveled furnace coal and washed dishes in a restaurant -- all of which he claimed were better than his previous job repossessing cars in Chicago in the middle of the Depression.

Wolcott graduated from dental school in 1941, just before World War II. He immediately joined the U.S. Navy, where he served as an officer for 21 years, retiring in 1962 as a captain. While working at the Navy Medical Center in Bethesda, he met his wife, Gladys, a chemist and medical researcher.

Wolcott started a naval school for dental practitioners in Guam, served aboard the USS Midway, and headed naval dental research facilities in Bainbridge, Md., and at Great Lakes Naval Training Center. In 1951, he earned his master's degree in dental sciences from Georgetown University.

Wolcott expressed equal pride in his Navy and UCLA affiliations. He loved to teach, and his UCLA students of three decades loved him in return. In 1987, UCLA's Epsilon Zeta chapter of the Omicron Kappa Upsilon (OKU) honor society created a special award to recognize Wolcott's longtime devotion to the school. The Dr. Robert Wolcott Award is presented each year to a privileged faculty member at the OKU awards banquet.

In 1997, the graduating class presented him with the prestigious Teacher of the Year award. That same year, his students from decades earlier recognized him as Honorary Alumnus of the Year. During his UCLA tenure, Wolcott earned 10 awards for outstanding teaching and authored nearly 60 publications.

Wolcott enjoyed staying active in the school's affairs, and in 1985 began serving as a faculty representative to the UCLA Dentistry Alumni Board. He co-chaired The Apollonians, the school's fund-raising group, from 1995 to 1997, and was appointed to the school's Board of Counselors in 1995. He also treated private patients at the UCLA Faculty Group Dental Practice from 1972 to 1985.

After retiring from full-time teaching in 1984, the energetic 84-year-old still drove to campus on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, where he taught general dentistry and often arrived early to tutor students in the clinic.

"People think I'm crazy," he used to say. "Because on Thursday, I start looking forward to coming to work again on Tuesday."

Wolcott was a fellow of the American College of Dentists and a member of the American Dental Association, American Academy of Gold Foil Operators, American Academy of Operative Dentistry and the International Association for Dental Research.

He is survived by Gladys, his loving wife of 53 years; his daughter, Debbie Hayhoe, of Reno, Nev.; his son, Bob, of Davis, Calif.; and four grandchildren.

The School of Dentistry will hold a memorial service to celebrate Wolcott's life on April 23 at 9 a.m. in the Factor Building Auditorium on the UCLA campus.