Tucked off a footpath through the heart of MUSC’s campus, the Macaulay Museum of Dental History chronicles not only the university’s journey to training South Carolina’s dentists but the urgent need that precipitated the dental school’s opening.
Thanks to one alumnus and his wife, a new exhibit helps to record that journey and also illustrates a typical 1930s dental practice similar to those run by the school’s founding fathers. The exhibit honors Joan Murdoch’s father, Dr. C.D. Falls, a dentistry leader who played a critical role in the college’s establishment in the 1950s and 1960s. It also honors the museum’s namesake, Dr. Neill W. Macaulay, a contemporary of Murdoch’s father and a mentor to her husband, Dr. Strother “Strut” Murdoch Jr.
“Dr. Macaulay really helped me out when I needed it,” Dr. Murdoch said. “I had a little bit going against me starting dental school, because I was 39 years old. Some people were against taking a student that old, but he went to bat for me and several of my classmates.”
Dr. Murdoch (class of 1979) went on to operate a successful dental clinic in Lancaster for 21 years until his retirement in 2000. He and Mrs. Murdoch have two children, both MUSC dental graduates with their own practices, Dr. Strother “Se” Murdoch III (class of 1993) and Dr. Merri Murdoch Gandhi (class of 1995), as well as their daughter-in-law, Dr. Michele Boyne Murdoch (class of 1993).
“The Murdochs are a true MUSC family,” said Stephanie Oberempt, director of development for the MUSC James B. Edwards College of Dental Medicine. “Their gift not only honors founding fathers of the school but preserves an important moment in history for this profession in our state.”
Mrs. Murdoch, who grew up in Woodruff, remembers her father making phone calls, writing letters and setting meetings with state government leaders to advocate for a dental school in South Carolina. The state General Assembly passed an act authorizing development of the school in 1953 but did not provide funding until 1964. Before MUSC opened its college, prospective dentists only could train out of state, something that bothered Dr. Falls.
“He owned his practice and, for many years, he was the only dentist in our close-knit community,” Mrs. Murdoch remembered. Not only did her father treat most of their neighbors, but he provided dental services to those without access or the means to pay.
Mrs. Murdoch’s first job, as a child, was to keep fresh flowers in the reception room in her father’s office. Her mother helped with bookkeeping and assisted Dr. Falls chairside, a task that later fell to Mrs. Murdoch and her sister during breaks in the school year.
Her husband, Dr. Murdoch, was one of her father’s many patients, although the couple didn’t meet until 11th grade French class. Dr. Murdoch initially followed his own father’s career path in the textile industry before deciding, with two children at home, to change professions and pursue a dental degree.
“That was one of the best decisions I ever made,” Dr. Murdoch said, “other than marrying Joan, of course.”
When Dr. Murdoch worked in the lab at night as a student, his seventh-grade son and fourth-grade daughter often joined him, peering at pathology slides by his side. Those memories reinforced the Murdochs’ decision to support the Macaulay Museum exhibit.
“The dental school did a lot for us,” Dr. Murdoch said. “I enjoyed dentistry. I enjoyed going to work, and the kids obviously enjoyed it too.”
Although the Murdochs’ gift honors Mrs. Murdoch’s late father, Dr. C.D. Falls never had the chance to witness the success of future students for whom he advocated. Dr. Falls died in 1965, and MUSC’s first class of dentists graduated in 1971.
“He did not live to see the school open,” Mrs. Murdoch said, “but he would be very proud to know that my husband and our son and our daughter graduated from dental school and have had wonderful careers.”
The Murdochs also have two grandchildren, 13 and 14 – too young to say just yet if the family can plan for another generation of alumni.
(Republished with permission of MUSC Legacies newsletter)