Dr. Arthur Bushel’s career includes a long list of accolades — leadership positions with both the New York City and state health departments, work in getting fluoride in the city’s water, leading the effort to get African-Americans accepted in the American Dental Association and a chair position at a Johns Hopkins University department — but the 93-year-old chalks it up mostly to good luck.
“Part of my whole career has been marked by good fortune,” he said, speaking from a lounge chair in his apartment at North Oaks Retirement Community.
Bushel and his wife, Marian, didn’t land in Baltimore until 1969, when he was already retired, but Bushel took a position as professor and chairman at what would become Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health in the public health administration department. That would later become Health Policy and Management.
While an exceptional career in public health preceded his time in Baltimore, the Bushels’ North Oaks apartment is not full of plaques and other relics from his career, but photos of their three children — Glenn, Faith and Betsy — and their families. To dig into Bushel’s career, one would need to rifle through Marian’s files, or hear it from the man himself.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Bushel followed in his father Harry’s footsteps and became a dentist. He attended Columbia University’s dental school, spending his last year there in the Army Specialized Training Program.
He spent two-and-a-half years at Camp Gordon (now Fort Gordon) in Augusta, Ga., during World War II, taking care of the dental needs of new recruits.
“That’s one of things that really had an effect on me, and I decided to go into public health,” he said. “They were a bunch of young kids. I wasn’t much older than any one of them, I was on the younger side, and they were in terrible shape. And I was seeing them from all over the country.”
Because of the conditions he saw in the new troops, Bushel spearheaded an effort to train dental hygienists and ran two dental clinics at Camp Gordon.
After serving in the Army, he went back to Columbia, this time to study public health. His knack for being in the right place at the right time began after he completed the one-year program. He got a call from the dean of the public health school, who said the New York State Department of Health needed someone to temporarily oversee the Bureau of Dental Health.
“When [the head] came back, there was no job for me, but at the time, just to mark my remarkable career — remarkable in the sense of chance — Herman Hilleboe became commissioner, and he was a ball of fire. He wasn’t waiting for anybody to get back from any place,” Bushel said. “So he got me the job [and] created the job of assistant director of dentistry of the state.”
It was there that he worked with Dr. David Ast on a pioneering fluoride study. In 1944, Ast compared the health and dental records of residents of Newburgh and Kingston, two New York towns. Newburgh’s water was fluoridated and the study found much lower rates of cavities among its children; the town became an example of the safety and effectiveness of water fluoridation.
In his time at the state health department, he also oversaw a mobile dental clinic, a trailer that went all over the state.
“These were places that had no dentists,” Bushel said. “What we did was these various counties paid to have the trailer come for a month or however long the population seemed to warrant it.”
In working on the fluoride studies, Bushel found himself in the middle of debates, and the comments from the opposition ran the gamut.
“You had people [saying] ‘rat poison’ and stuff and ‘you shouldn’t force people to do it,’” he said, noting that some thought water fluoridation was part of a communist takeover. “I was threatened as a matter of fact; my children [also] when they were pretty young.”
Marian Bushel recalled various phone calls harassing the family.
Those early debates prepared him for New York City, where he would serve as director of the bureau of dentistry for its health department under Leona Baumgartner, the city’s first female commissioner of health.
“Leona gave me the assignment of selling fluoridation to the city, so I had a big political career,” Bushel said, jokingly. He was also in charge of the city’s 115 free pediatric dental clinics. “We didn’t do fancy stuff, but we filled a lot of teeth.”
Ultimately, New York City’s water supply was fluoridated in 1964, which Bushel attributed to having data “you didn’t have to be a Nobel Prize winner to appreciate.”
After his time at the city health department, part of which included time as acting commissioner, Bushel came to Hopkins. His name is now listed on the School of Public Health’s website under “Heroes of Public Health.”
But Bushel is not one to brag. His humble nature is precisely why North Oaks executive director Mark Pressman only heard of Bushel’s achievements through the grapevine.
“For quite some time I had understood he was a dentist. [I thought] that’s pretty cool, that’s an accomplishment. That’s a worthy profession,” Pressman said. “Sometimes we find out about these rather remarkable things because they get to know other residents and share information, and then it’s like, ‘Holy cow! How would I have known?’”