Professor emerita and lifetime researcher Birgit Thilander died July 29, 2016, at the age of 92
| Prof. Birgit Thilander|
Professor Emerita Birgit Thilander of Gothenburg, Sweden, died July 29, 2016. She was 92. In 2000, the WFO recognized Prof. Thilander for her significant contributions to the specialty of orthodontics with honorary fellowship in the WFO.
Prof. Thilander, who received her professorship in orthodontics at the University of Gothenburg in 1969, was actively pursuing research projects at the university at the time of her death. Prof. Thilander was also working with Prof. Lars Bondemark and Dr. Krister Bjerklin on a new textbook, Essential Orthodontics.
“The text of the book was complete, and we should have met with Prof. Thilander in August for the final editing of the image material, but, sadly, she suddenly died in July,” said Prof. Bondemark, head and professor of orthodontics at the Faculty of Odontology at Malmö University. “Prof. Thilander’s utmost wish was to complete the book. Thus, the book will be further edited by the publisher (Wiley) in the autumn of 2016 to fully complete the book. And, of course, all her sections will be included in it.”
Her colleagues remember her for her lifelong curiosity and drive to find the answers to her questions about orthodontic treatment. Prof. Thilander’s research focused on biological mechanisms in craniofacial growth and development in relation to clinical orthodontics. She especially studied how the tissues react when the teeth are moved during orthodontic treatment, and this research emphasis resulted in long-term interdisciplinary cooperation with periodontists, Prof. Bondemark said.
“Prof. Thilander had an extremely sharp intellect, and it was curiosity that drove her and her research. The clinical issues were always the basis for her research, where the answers of the issues, for ethical reasons, were often found by animal studies,” said Prof. Bondemark, who also notes that Prof. Thilander was well-known for her work on craniofacial growth studies and dental implants. “She followed the facial and jaw growth in 5-year-old children until they became 30 years old. The uniqueness of this research was that it was a large group of individuals with normal anatomy, and, thus, the normal development and growth could be mapped or described. Moreover, as an expert, her knowledge of facial and jaw growth was utilized by Prof. Per-Ingvar Brånemark, the father of dental titanium implants, and their research resulted in the important knowledge that head, face and jaws should have finished growth before insertion of dental titanium implants.”
In 2007, the World Journal of Orthodontics (WJO), the WFO’s scientific journal at that time, interviewed Prof. Thilander. In that article, Prof. Thilander expressed her desire for orthodontists and postgraduate students to pay more attention to dentofacial development and growth.
“I am afraid that the postgraduate students, as well as many ‘experts’ in orthodontics, are more interested in brackets and wires, bonding materials, and mini-implants as anchorage units than in basic knowledge,” she told the WJO. “Every orthodontic congress offers an exhibition area filled with orthodontists gathered around hundreds of stands and buying these materials, recommended by the different manufacturers. Of course, we need these facilities, but we must be aware of the tissue response and the probable risk of tissue damage. The lecture rooms with clinical recommendations (often without serious background) are well-frequented, in contrast to those rooms announcing a scientific issue of basic character.
“So, I think that we have to spend more time in basic knowledge on dentofacial development and growth. This is of importance for diagnosis/differential-diagnosis. We need to explore function and tissue reaction (including adverse effects) caused by biomechanical parameters (force, type of tooth movement, treatment duration). How to explain to patients the difference between relapse versus natural development? I am convinced that such in-depth teaching during the postgraduate period will encourage some young people to get involved in orthodontic research, both clinical as well as experimental, and with that approach, bring more knowledge to our special field.”
Over her career, Prof. Thilander wrote more than 200 original articles, several of which earned her prestigious awards. “Research is, for me, like doing a big jigsaw puzzle, where each new result is a new piece that fits into what I already added,” Prof. Thilander said in a 2011 interview with Akademiliv (akademiliv.se), the online magazine for the Sahlgrenska Academy at the University of Gothenburg. “I have always been curious about what the next piece of the puzzle may look like, and curiosity is still the force that drives me.”
In addition to the recognition for her research, Prof. Thilander was the first female professor in the field of odontology at the University of Gothenburg and in all of Sweden. She was equally active as a volunteer leader in many professional associations and served as the first female president of the European Orthodontic Society. During her time at the University of Gothenburg, she supervised 19 doctoral students, eight of whom became professors.
“I was impressed by her active mind, her fantastic memory of all of her projects and results, even the details, and the fact that she was up-to-date with the orthodontic literature,” said Prof. Maria Ransjö, professor and chair of the Department of Orthodontics of the Sahlgrenska Academy at the University of Gothenburg, noting Prof. Thilander still spent one to two days a week at the university and had recently attended the 92nd Congress of the European Orthodontic Society in June. “She was still curious and interested in solving the puzzle. Most of the time, she was working on research projects and her book, but she also booked meetings with me, and we discussed research and the field of orthodontics. It was inspiring since I share the strong opinion of Prof. Thilander that biological mechanisms are an important base for our clinical work in orthodontics. I will miss her very much.”
In addition to her own doctorate, three universities awarded Prof. Thilander honorary doctorate degrees. In 2011, the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden, appointed Prof. Thilander as a jubilee doctor on the 50th anniversary of completing her PhD.
At the time of this recognition, Elin Lindström Claessen, editor of Akademiliv, interviewed Prof. Thilander, who reflected on the past 50 years.
“It’s easy to come over all nostalgic and wonder what I’d do differently if I had those 50 years again,” Prof. Thilander said in the resulting Akademiliv article. “Actually, I wouldn’t change a thing. I’d just carry on doing what I’ve always done, looking for bits of the puzzle.”
Prof. Thilander was preceded in death by her husband, Holger Thilander, and her children, Gisela Thilander and Mats Thilander.