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North Star: Dr. Alan H. Gluskin to Advance Endodontics Above the Fray

By Elisabeth Lisican

One might say there’s an explorer’s spirit in most every endodontist. Dr. Alan H. Gluskin certainly has the passport stamps and anthropology degree to make his case.

Now the well-traveled new leader of the American Association of Endodontists begins his presidency determined to advocate in a meaningful way for our specialty and endodontists who have the skills and knowledge that patients deserve to advance their health.

“You have to think about your patients,” he said. “When patients receive care that shows evidence that the dentist was doing things beyond their skill and knowledge, it is really a tragedy.”

Ensuring Endodontic Competency

Even back when he was studying anthropology at UCLA, Dr. Gluskin was particularly mesmerized by the mandible.

“I went on a lot of digs,” he said. “And when we found skulls and teeth and jaws, I got really fascinated with that aspect of the discovery, and so I always wanted to be some sort of a doctor.”

These days he’s determined to make sure living teeth and jaws are in the right hands when it comes to endodontic treatment. He served as one of the organizing  authors on the AAE’s Endodontic Competency and Treatment Standards white papers and often exercises his expertise in legal forensics. (Look for his latest article showcasing serious malpractice injuries in the Journal of the American Dental Association.)

He promises to spend his presidential year promoting endodontics and advocating for endodontists. He also vows to argue to third-party payers that utilizing an endodontist makes sense economically “because paying for a root canal by a practitioner who does not have the skill and knowledge makes no sense economically when one must pay a second time for someone with the skill and understanding to retreat it the right way.”

Dr. Gluskin is professor and vice-chair, Department of Endodontics, at the Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry, University of the Pacific, in San Francisco. He is at present a Fellow of the International College of Dentists and the American College of Dentists.

He is a member of numerous societies, including the American Dental Association and the San Francisco Dental Society. He has served on the Educational Affairs Committee and the Research and Scientific Affairs Committee of the AAE, as well as the Editorial Board of the Journal of Endodontics and as general chair for both AAE10 and AAE18. Additionally, he is the 2017 recipient of the University of the Pacific’s Eberhardt Teacher-Scholar Award and co-editor of the textbooks, Decision Making in Dental Treatment Planning and Practical Lessons in Endodontic Treatment.

Dr. Gluskin graduated from the University of the Pacific School of Dentistry, San Francisco, in 1972. Before receiving his Endodontic Certification from Temple University in Philadelphia in 1976, Dr. Gluskin spent two years as a general dentist and recalled the exact moment he knew he wanted to be a specialist in saving teeth.

“One day, a patient came to me, and she was very swollen in the front of her mouth -- and that is one of the most difficult things to do in dentistry, to allow a patient to get numb without really hurting them, because they’re already hurting, and to get  the kind of drainage you need when they’re that swollen,” he said. “And to do it in an empathetic way that doesn’t make it 10 times worse for them ... As I started that process, I realized she was hurting so much and I knew based on my skill that I was going to try and be very kind and soft with her, but I still didn’t quite have the training to really make it painless.

“So, I said, ‘I’m going to refer you to an endodontist. I think, under the circumstances, you’re so infected and I don’t want to add to your misery; I’m going to send you to someone in the neighborhood who can take care of you.’ When she came back after that endodontist treated her, the first thing she did was hug me and kiss me and thank me. She said, ‘you sent me to the perfect person.’

“And I said to myself at that very moment – ‘I want to know how to do that.’”

A Nod to The Godfather

Another key milestone back in those early days was meeting the late, master educator and researcher Dr. Sam Seltzer, who served as chairperson of the Department of Endodontics at Temple University from 1967 to 1983.

“He was really one of the godfathers of endodontics,” Dr. Gluskin said. “Boston, Philadelphia and New York were pretty much the center of endo in the 60s. You had key people and they were all brilliant, and there was some competition amongst them in terms of making discoveries that were published and had a real impact on the profession. They all had some ego. But Sam Seltzer was very special because, as brilliant as he was, I think he had one of the lesser egos. I really hit it off with him.”

Dr. Gluskin recalled immersing himself in the new technology of the time -- the scanning electron microscope -- with Dr. Seltzer, and the important lessons the pioneer taught him.

“He would constantly call you into his office if he was looking under a microscope,” Dr. Gluskin said. “He spent his lunch hour looking under a microscope. … So, he shows me something -- there was something really unusual going on in the slide he was looking at -- and he said to me after explaining what he was looking at: ‘you could fill 20 libraries with what we don’t know.’ His famous quote to his graduating residents was: 'Half of what we think we know is wrong – the problem is, we don’t know which half!'. He was very special.”

Endo Scissorhands?

Dr. Gluskin may not know everything, but some of what he does know might surprise you. He could give you a full head of highlights and style your hair, for example, thanks to the skill set he picked up in his boyhood days at the high-end Beverly Hills hair salon where his mother worked.

He also knows a thing or two about placing a bet.

“I was either at the beauty shop – or the racetrack,” he said. “My father was a salesman. He grew up during the Depression and dropped out of school because he needed to make money. At the carnival, he did the 'Shell Game', where people bet and tried to figure out where he put the ball under the shell; and he had really fast hands and shuffled them up.

“My father was a very friendly man. My mother said to him when they were dating, ‘you’ve got to get a steady job before I’ll marry you.’ So, he was always in sales. Whether it was room additions, whatever he was selling, he always had to cultivate people and try to get them to buy what he was selling.”

It was also his mother who helped guide Dr. Gluskin down his own career path.

“All my youth my mother said, ‘you’ve got to go to school; you have to have a profession. This is not the best way to live’. So, under those circumstances, I stayed in school; I did well, and ultimately decided to go into the profession of dentistry.”

Happily Ever After

These days, Dr. Gluskin has his own loving family: his wife, Riitta, and their two twin children, Adam and Suvi, 29.

“My son is a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy Dental Corps,” Dr. Gluskin said. “He will be applying to endo school this year. My daughter is in children’s education; she works for a startup software company that makes software that links the teachers, the parents, and preschool and grammar schoolchildren in lessons and learning.”

Explorers at heart, the family enjoys traveling the world together.

“If we can, we try and take really adventurous trips. We were in Patagonia, and then we did the rest of Chile,” he said. “We’ve been to Machu Picchu; we’ve been all over western Europe. My wife is from Finland, so we spent New Year’s Eve in Lapland. We are a very close family.”

If it’s family first, then endodontics is a strong second for Dr. Gluskin. He asks for members’ collaboration, volunteerism and support of one another this year; and he believes we all have an obligation to make our specialty stand above the fray.

“I love our specialty and wouldn’t and couldn’t conceive of anything I’d rather have done as a practitioner and now as an educator,” he said. “It suits me perfectly, and I am just enamored with the people I’ve met through this specialty and the friends, the good friends, I’ve made. I feel absolutely blessed in this life that I chose this path.”

Dr. Gluskin and his son Adam at his Naval officer graduation in Newport, R.I.
Dr. Gluskin and his son Adam at his Naval officer graduation in Newport, R.I.
Dr. Gluskin with wife, Riitta; daughter, Suvi; and Adam at Adam’s dental school graduation
Dr. Gluskin with wife, Riitta; daughter, Suvi; and Adam at Adam’s dental school graduation
The family on a glacier at Denali National Park, Alaska
The family on a glacier at Denali National Park, Alaska
The family at Denali National Park
The family at Denali National Park
The family in Patagonia, Chile
The family in Patagonia, Chile

Elisabeth Lisican is an integrated communications specialist with the American Association of Endodontists. She can be reached at