Posted on 20th April 2020
A quick scan of Dr Rob Bower’s CV reveals something quite striking: this is a man who shuns “routine”. While he could have easily focused his career on his work as a periodontist, he instead chose to see and experience many, many different things.
“I resolved that every five years I was going to get away and bring myself up to speed,” Rob says. “Certainly, when I was in London, I found that my MDSc from Perth was well up to speed, so that is what I kept to.”
His five-yearly getaways also included charitable work – including a number of trips to Cambodia in the 1990s in conjunction with Bob Hotinski, in an effort to rebuild the Dental School and to educate the dental educators after the ravages of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.
“I don’t know how many professors were at the Dental School around that time but only two were not murdered and they retreated to France,” he says. “The library had been burned and all the dental equipment had been thrown out on to the street and was rusted. There was some donated equipment from the UK, but it was terribly ancient. A bucket on a tripod passed as a spittoon. The conditions were just shocking.”
The trip saw Rob think on his feet – using MacGyver-like skills to get the equipment working. “To show you just how primitive it was, they would get chest x–ray film and cut it up into little rectangular pieces in the dark room, then repack the pieces to make up their intraoral film,” he recalls.
“The x–ray unit (liberated from a destitute private clinic) had a pointed cone and was dangerous as it would scatter radiation. So, I took the collimator off and got some plastic water pipe. I asked a ‘dental radiographer’ there named Pok Nun if he could come up with some lead for a diaphragm. I’m pretty sure they pinched a battery overnight and came back next day with this lead sheet, which I used to make the circular diaphragm, using a Swiss Army knife. I took test x–rays to check the beam diameter and scatter and it worked a treat.
“The next time we went to Cambodia, we enquired whether there was any fighting going on near Angkor. There was still fighting in the countryside but not close by so Bob and I went up to Angkor Wat and it was beautiful. There was next to no one at the site, and we soon found out why – we could hear machine–gun fire. But we kept on, and it was an absolutely amazing experience.”
On top of his stints overseas, Rob’s impact locally was also great, with nearly 40 years spent as a consultant periodontist at Princess Margaret Hospital for Children.
“The main work I did there was with the oncology kids and particularly those in the bone marrow transplant program,” he says. “During a bone marrow transplant (stem cell rescue), patients are rendered completely immune incompetent for a while and during that time they are susceptible to oral infections. I was asked if I could look after these kids. In the first 100 transplants we had, no one died of an oral infection.”
His achievements are many – although the ones that stand out for him are passing his BDSc with unexpected honours when it was largely unheard of and being offered a senior full-time and tenured position at the Department of Periodontology at the University of Michigan. He also found teaching very rewarding, with a history lecturing on dental radiography and periodontology at UWA.
Retirement will certainly not mean slowing down for Rob, who will be continuing the examination of Abrolhos Island skulls from 1629, along with forensic pathologist, Dr Steve Knott, to get a snapshot of dental health in Dutch seafarers and travellers in the 17th century. Rob, who has dived on the wreckage of the Batavia site, is keen to see what else they will discover from the story the skulls will tell, which he says is a “glacial” project.
“The skulls are kept at Fremantle and the anthropology department at UWA gets out about four or five skulls at a time out of the 22 discovered to date. They have taken CT studies of the skulls and we are taking intra-oral radiographs. There is some interesting information coming up – we can already refute one published study on these skulls.”
His research accomplishments also extend beyond dentistry, with one project examining the North African paintings of Australian impressionist, Emanuel Phillips Fox.
Creating a virtual map using postcards of Bou Sa'da, where the paintings are set, Rob realised that the names of some of paintings were confused. He suggested title changes for five works of Phillips Fox, and also suggested reattributing one of the paintings to Fox’s wife, Ethel Carrick. Rob presented his study to a capacity audience at Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery a few years ago.
Pursuing his love and appreciation of art, Rob is about to become a Gallery Guide at the Art Gallery of Western Australia: “I will be the guy who gives people the background on the artworks,” he says. “I hope to fertilise and nurture an interest in art for others. I was very lucky at the Royal Dental Hospital in London because the school was almost back–to–back with the National Gallery, so I used to often not eat lunch and go to the gallery. There were some fantastic gallery guides there.
So, when I heard that there were positions at the local gallery, I made an enquiry and was encouraged to apply. I have to do about 12 months training, but I will be very happy to give something back because art has done a lot for me.”
An interest in art, encouraged by his mother and his art teachers at Perth Modern School, continues to be a passion for Rob, who urges new dentists to pursue a hobby outside of work.
“When I finished my master’s degree, I did an evening course in fine–art printmaking at Perth Tech,” he recalls. “I was anonymous once I pulled on an old pair of ink–stained jeans and left the surgery. I had a great teacher in the late Judith Chambers, who really inspired me. It was very important to have something else outside of dentistry because you have to have that balance – otherwise you’d go nuts.”
For a man with such a varied career in dentistry, it’s interesting to wonder what he’ll miss most as he enters retirement. “Oh,” he says, laughing. “that’s easy. The free toothpaste, but also many of my colleagues.”