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UTSD’s Vintage Articulator Collection Now Online

Thursday, February 14, 2013 - 3:12pm

Dr. Ed Starcke (left) and Dr. Don Belles, in front of a collection of articulators in the Department of Restorative Dentistry and Prosthodontics.

Dr. Edgar Starcke (left) and Dr. Donald Belles with a collection of articulators on display in the Department of Restorative Dentistry & Prosthodontics. The collection is also online. Photo by Rhonda Whitmeyer.

What started six decades ago as the quirky interest of a University of Texas School of Dentistry at Houston professor has led to a one-of-a-kind historical dental resource, thanks to other faculty members who share the fascination for old dental instruments.

A collection of vintage dental articulators – some dating to the 19th century – has long been housed in UTSD’s Department of Restorative Dentistry and Prosthodontics. Recently, the collection went online.

The collection of 62 articulators  – including photos, detailed descriptions and even links to patent information – is a unique resource for dental students, educators and historians, said Edgar Starcke, DDS, clinical professor.

Starcke and Donald Belles, DDS, associate professor and director of graduate prosthodontics, are the unofficial keepers of the articulator collection at UTSD, in addition to being avid collectors themselves.

The articulators made their online debut in November 2012, but the collection itself dates back to 1955. Dr. Heinz Beck, chair of the Prosthodontics Department at the time, amassed dozens of pieces and put them on display.

As a UTSD student in the 1960’s, Starcke helped reorganize and expand the collection, scouring the building for overlooked and lost articulators.

“The collection was in disarray. Some were in the showcase but lots were scattered around, stuffed in closets,” Starcke said. “I found as many as I could and cleaned them up.” 

That kindled a lifelong fascination with the devices, and Starcke has since authored two dozen articles on articulators and their history for the Journal of Prosthodontics. He also wrote the historical and descriptive information for all the articulators on the UTSD website.

The School of Dentistry’s articulator collection may not be the largest, but it is the only one of its kind online, Starcke said. The collection includes some experimental prototypes, as well as pieces designed by pioneers in the field.

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Articulators are devices that help depict how the jaw moves. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews.

Since they were first patented more than 150 years ago, articulators have helped dentists fabricate dentures, crowns and other dental prosthetics by replicating the position and movements of the mandible.

The evolution of these articulators is a valuable study in the history and development of dentistry, Starcke said.

“Through articulators, you see how the profession came to understand the real nature of mandibular movement and how the jaw works,” Starcke said. “Each device reflects inventors’ different ideas of how the jaw moves.”

The project was aided by a grant from the Texas State Libraries and Archives Commission to photograph and digitally catalogue the collection.

The real-life articulators are on display in showcases in the fifth-floor waiting area of the Department of Restorative Dentistry and Prosthodontics at UT School of Dentistry, 7500 Cambridge St. in Houston.  The school moved into the $155 million, new building in May 2012 after nearly 60 years in the old “Dental Branch Building” at 6516 M.D. Anderson Blvd.

Protective of the articulators and not trusting the task to movers, Starcke and Belles personally packed and drove the collection to the new school.

Both men have also accumulated large personal collections of articulators; Belles estimates he has about 200 devices, Starcke about half that number.

Many of the pieces were acquired through eBay, where they can be had for as little as $5. Dentists’ heirs will often auction off the devices, not appreciating their historic value. But the small circle of devoted collectors can sometimes bid the price up. Starcke once bid $2,500 for an articulator, and lost.

“You buy one interesting piece and then another and pretty soon, you have to have them all,” Belles said. “Between our collections, there isn’t much that we’re missing.” 

Belles and Starcke hope to continue improving the school’s online collection by making it searchable and by adding more articulators to the site.

UT School of Dentistry is part of The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth).