Dr. Walter Guralnick reached into a briefcase on his desk at Massachusetts General Hospital, pulled out a printout of a speech he gave a few months ago, and slid it across to a reporter. The speech contained the answers to the two questions he is asked constantly, and Guralnick figured it best to get them out of the way since he knew they would be coming.
The first question is: How does it feel to be 100 years old?
That answer is quite easy. It doesn’t feel much different than the many birthdays that have preceded it.
But the answer to the second question — Why haven’t you completely retired? — is both simple and complex and in many ways is the story of Guralnick’s long life.
Health care and health policy have always been his vocation and his avocation. It is a phrase he has uttered many times, and it is the reason, 65 years after he began his career at Massachusetts General Hospital, he still shows up most days to the department of oral and maxillofacial surgery.
“I haven’t retired because my interests are the same now as they were 50 years ago,” Guralnick said. “I’ve always said that if you’re gonna work, you should seek to find something that you enjoy doing, and hopefully at the same time you can do some good for people. Money is not the most important thing. I decry it.’’
In the field of dental surgery, Guralnick has long been a giant, a former chair of the department who pioneered the concept of having oral surgeons pursue dual degrees in dentistry and medicine. He also distinguished himself in the effort to bring affordable dental care to the masses through dental insurance. He helped found what is now Delta Dental and served for many years as its president, pro bono.
Guralnick no longer sees patients; instead, he spends his time working with the residents in the department.
“It’s so enlightening to have him, because even though he’s 100 years old, he’s very au courant,” said Dr. Maria Troulis, the chief of oral and maxillofacial surgery at MGH, a position Guralnick held from 1966 to 1983. “He’s focused on where we need to go.”
Dr. Mark Green, one of the residents who works with Guralnick today, said that when Guralnick does bring up the past, it’s “to show how far we’ve come, to show where we’ve been, and the struggles and gains we’ve been able to achieve.”
Guralnick grew up in Roxbury, graduated from Boston Latin School and the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and earned his doctor of dental medicine degree from Harvard in 1941, just as the United States was about to enter World War II.
He married his wife, Betty, shortly before he enlisted and was sent to Europe, where he worked in hospital units in England, France, and Belgium.
He and Betty, who died a few years ago, raised three children in Brookline, instilling in them his strong sense of community and democratic values.
“His values have never changed, and that’s why he will never retire. His goal is to deliver health service and equality to all, and those are ongoing fights,” said his son, Peter, an accomplished author and music writer. “That’s why he still enjoys working with the residents. It’s an ongoing commitment to the humanism of medicine, and he has always wanted to instill that in the future generations.
“He believes medicine serves the patients, and he believes there should be equal access for all. That has been his goal from the start, and it is no less his goal today.”
In recent years, Guralnick has given up driving and has moved into an assisted living facility in Cambridge.
Yet other than the nods to slowing down physically, he says his brain is still gifted with what he calls the “Still Syndrome,” a condition first described by the famed economist John Kenneth Galbraith – “I am still working and speaking, and am still thinking, and I still enjoy the sight of a pretty woman!”Billy Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.