“Dentistry is an art,” says Johnson, a current professor and former Dean of UTHealth School of Dentistry. “You are creating something beautiful that will improve a child’s appearance and speech.”
When reconstructing a child’s tooth or filling a cavity, Ronald Johnson, DDS, never saw his work strictly as a dental procedure.
An accomplished painter and sculptor since childhood, Johnson’s career in pediatric dentistry merged his desire to help children with his artistic creativity. Six decades of clinical practice, teaching, and academic leadership have shown him the challenges and rewards of the field.
“Children are very honest,” he says. “You have to know how to communicate with them. They will notice everything you do, so you have to be pleasant and know how to treat them even when they are disruptive. You can’t lose your peace of mind.”
A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh and Harvard University, Johnson has taught and practiced at five hospitals and five schools, serving as Dean of the School of Dentistry from 1996 to 2002. He developed new techniques to improve pediatric treatment, including a special children’s headrest to allow a surgical team optimal positioning during operations.
Johnson taught pediatric residents the most effective methods to treat patients and help meet a community need to increase the number of minority dentists. He placed special emphasis on ensuring residents learned to work in a cooperative manner with dental assistants and other staff members.
“Pediatric dentistry must be a sit-down, interactive process where the team works together, maintains a pleasant attitude, and manages the child’s behavior with kindness,” he says.
In 2017, Johnson established the Ronald Johnson, DDS Research and Academic Excellence Impact Fund at the School of Dentistry. Created to honor his mother, who supported him in his pursuit of dentistry, the endowment provides resources for the academic and research needs of pediatric residents.
The fund helps fill a vital need for resident research support. Every pediatric dental resident must conduct a research initiative to graduate from the program, but the Department of Pediatric Dentistry has limited funds to offset expenses such as equipment, surveys, and tests. As a result, residents often must pay these costs out-of-pocket, delaying their research or forcing them to abandon their initial projects for less expensive alternatives.
“They have a tough enough program to complete already, so I think it’s important that we provide them funding to conduct their research,” Johnson says.
When the UTHealth Pediatric Dentistry Clinic completed renovations to its clinic space in 2017, the school honored Johnson’s generosity by naming the clinic’s state-of-the-art conference room after him and displaying one of his paintings prominently on the wall.
“Dr. Johnson’s leadership and generosity continue to make a difference for our residents and the patients they serve,” said John A. Valenza, DDS, Dean of the School of Dentistry. “We are honored to forever associate his name with the care of children, a mission to which he has devoted his life.”
Having achieved the highest levels of academic dentistry, advanced the field through innovation, and trained countless pediatric dentists, Johnson never forgets the children at the center of his work—and the simple rewards of reaching even the most difficult patients.
“If I can befriend them and make them smile, I’ve won the battle,” he says.