As his 100th birthday came and went last November, Dr. Walter Guralnick kept going to work a few days a week at Massachusetts General Hospital, his professional home for 65 years.
By then, he had retired from performing oral surgery and instead was a mentor to faculty members and students who sought the counsel of someone who had changed dental history in Massachusetts and across the country.
Dr. Guralnick, who died at MGH Wednesday night of complications from congestive heart failure, was a driving force in a decade-long push to create dental insurance in Massachusetts in the late 1960s. He also advocated for groundbreaking changes in dental school education in the early 1970s that produced better-trained oral surgeons. Colleagues say it’s impossible to quantify how many more patients were treated and how many teeth were saved over the past five decades because of his efforts.
“He wanted to make sure underprivileged people could get the dental care they need,” said Dr. Maria J. Troulis, who is chief of oral and maxillofacial surgery at MGH, the title Dr. Guralnick once held. “He really was a visionary, even in his earlier years.”
The Dental Service Corp. of Massachusetts was launched in 1970, and for a decade Dr. Guralnick served as president of the organization, which is now part of Delta Dental. “In the 1950s to 1960s, it was very apparent that there was no sort of insurance for dental care, so a lot of people couldn’t get care because they couldn’t afford it on their own,” he told a Mass. General publication last year.
A former president of the Massachusetts Dental Society, Dr. Guralnick led efforts more than 45 years ago to promote fluoridation of water supplies across the state. He also believed oral surgeons would benefit from receiving dual degrees and training in dentistry and medicine, and helped create an innovative program to do that at Harvard University that subsequently was imitated by colleges across the country.
“It really was a program that changed the field. He was ahead of his time,” said Dr. Bruce Donoff, dean of the Harvard School of Dental Medicine, who added that Dr. Guralnick “was an amazing man and exceptional person.”
The son of a pediatrician and the brother of a surgeon, Dr. Guralnick grew up in a medical family and “had always felt very strongly that you needed to do some general surgery to be adept at any kind of surgery you did,” he told the MGH publication. “And to do general surgery, you needed to have finished the training of a physician and have a medical degree. And it wasn’t just the degree. It was the education that went with getting the medical degree.”
Walter C. Guralnick grew up in East Boston and Roxbury, a son of Dr. Rubin Guralnick and the former Nina Hazman, who were immigrants from Russia. His father, a prominent pediatrician, practiced in Winthrop and East Boston, where his poorest patients sometimes brought vegetables to pay for their treatment.
“For both my father and grandfather, medicine represented a kind of community service,” the writer Peter Guralnick said last year when the Harvard School of Dental Medicine honored his father, Walter. “The consideration that you gave to your patients reflected the values in which you believed — human values as well as scientific ones — and what you did reflected not just technical training, but what you stood for, the kind of person you were.”
Walter Guralnick graduated from Boston Latin School and went to Massachusetts State College, which later became the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He was on the sports staff of the Collegian, the student newspaper, and was elected managing editor — a post formerly held by his older brother, Dr. Eugene Guralnick, who became a prominent surgeon.
Walter graduated from college in 1937 and from the Harvard School of Dental Medicine four years later. He was working as an oral surgery resident at Boston City Hospital when he heard on the radio that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. Before shipping out in the military, he married Betty Marson on New Year’s Day 1942 in the Brookline house where she had lived since she was 12, and where they lived throughout their marriage.
He was in a Boston City Hospital group of physicians that was activated during World War II as the 7th General Hospital. Dispatched to England, he arrived on the December day in 1943 when Peter, his first child, was born. “So I didn’t get to see him until he was about 25 or 26 months old,” Dr. Guralnick told MGH. Upon returning home after serving in England, France, and Belgium, “I knew I was going to do oral surgery,” he said. “There weren’t that many oral surgeons in Boston at that time.”
Dr. Guralnick opened a private practice in Boston and began working in 1951 at Mass. General, where he chaired the oral and maxillofacial surgery department from 1966 to 1983.
“If you wanted to come up with the perfect definition for gentleman, it would be Walter Guralnick,” said Dr. Peter L. Slavin, president of MGH. “He was the kindest, most genteel, most thoughtful, considerate, wise person you could ever meet.”
Dr. Guralnick’s many honors included being elected to the memberships of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies of Sciences, and to the Royal College of Surgeons in England. He received the Arnold K. Maislen award at New York University, the Forsyth Institute’s Gavel Prize, and the Harvard Medal. The Harvard School of Dental Medicine has a professorship in his name in oral and maxillofacial surgery.
His wife, who returned to school for a master’s in social work after their children were grown, formerly worked in a Roxbury office of the Boston Welfare Department and died in 2010 at 89. A couple of years ago, Dr. Guralnick moved to a residence in Cambridge.
On Aug. 17, a few days before becoming ill, he was in the front row during a grand rounds meeting at MGH. “He caught every nuance of the presentation and commented afterward on things I’m sure the younger doctors might have missed,” said Troulis, who added that to the end, Dr. Guralnick was a valued mentor. “He would only talk about the past when it was relevant for the discussion, but he was never, ‘Oh, this is how I did it.’ He was always living for today and directing toward the future, like a true leader should.”
In addition to Peter, who lives in West Newbury, Dr. Guralnick leaves his daughter, Susan of Seattle; another son, Tom of Albuquerque; five grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.
There will be no funeral. A memorial gathering will be announced.
During an interview at his desk at MGH in January, Dr. Guralnick told the Globe he still went to work not for the paycheck but for the satisfaction of making a difference.
“I haven’t retired because my interests are the same now as they were 50 years ago,” he explained. “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.”