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A beloved mentor, he mixed engineering with dentistry

October 1, 2018

Dr. Robert Isaacson was a “modest, self-effacing person,” according to his wife, but he had an amazing ability to bring people together and inspire them to break new ground in the field of orthodontics, a specialized form of dentistry.

“It was an amazing thing to watch. He was a very private person but he was able to communicate,” Delores Isaacson said.

“He got the best out of everybody.”

Isaacson died Sept. 15 in Edina. He was 86. It was the day after the couple’s 48th wedding anniversary.

Isaacson thrived while working at three universities, including serving as chairman of the orthodontics departments at the University of Minnesota beginning in 1965 and later at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond from 1987 to 2000.

But he had an outsized influence beyond those institutions, publishing groundbreaking research, lecturing worldwide and ultimately editing a prominent orthodontics journal after he retired from Virginia.

Among his innovations at Minnesota was an accelerated program where dental students would also receive a Ph.D. in science. He advocated for greater access for patients and efficiency in dental practice, seeking changes in licensure that allowed dental assistants to apply dental sealants and fluoride treatments.

“He was really a very important figure in the field of orthodontics,” said Dr. Steven Lindauer, who was mentored by Isaacson and succeeded him as department chairman in Virginia.

“He was always happy with the way things were going, but he was never content with what we had accomplished, and he always wanted to accomplish more.”

Born in New York and raised in New Jersey by a father who was an engineer and a mother who was a teacher, Isaacson trained to be a dentist, even though his father wanted him to be a physician. He developed an interest in orthodontics, the specialty that diagnoses and treats malpositioned teeth.

“He liked engineering, and he thought there were a lot of things in the movement of teeth that really related to engineering principles,” said Delores Isaacson.

While at the University of Minnesota, he received a $1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study how the jaw moves. It was one of the largest federal awards in dentistry at the time.

Dr. Frank Worms, who was encouraged to go into orthodontics by Isaacson and worked with him for several years, said Isaacson “had a vision of the future, and he was always thinking outside the box.”

He developed a program that put orthodontists into rural parts of Minnesota where the profession’s supply was low, and he took steps to diversify the industry by training more women.

“He was a real expert at trying to bring out the best in you as far as your ethics in your research and education,” said Worms, who is now retired.

He treated faculty members, students and staff as colleagues.

“He had a lot of respect for all the different people that he worked with at different levels,” said Lindauer. “It empowered them to gain self-confidence.”

Isaacson never saw his job as a burden, Delores Isaac­son said.

“To him it didn’t seem like work, it was fun,’’ she said. “He couldn’t wait to get there.”

In addition to his wife, Isaacson is survived by daughters Catherine and Mary, son Robert and seven grandchildren. Services have been held.

Glenn Howatt • 612-673-7192

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