Orthodontist and inventor Dwight Damon ’62 loves to see the beautiful smiles and straight teeth of his patients. Even better, he knows they’ll look and feel better thanks to his innovative approach to orthodontic care.
Damon recently received the 2009 Regents’ Distinguished Alumnus Award, the University’s highest honor. The Spokane-based orthodontist is best known for creating a new system of braces that reduce pain, length of treatment, and number of teeth that need to be extracted.
In his work, Damon observed that bone and tissue in patients responded in interesting ways to reduced force on the mouth, which led him to develop a new system of braces. “Traditional braces, by the very nature of how the wire is tied into the braces, are bound up and cause friction. It’s hard for things to move. Therefore it pushes harder on teeth, and makes the treatment plan for the patient totally different,” he explains.
Damon’s system replaces elastic and tight metal wires with “doors” on each brace and high-tech wires that allow movement. It puts 500 to 600 times less force on each tooth than traditional braces. Clinicians found the Damon Bracket System is effective not just on teeth, but on the arch of the mouth, facial profile, and airway.
Orthodontists around the world now use Damon’s bracket system. And for his efforts, Damon has received numerous professional honors, including election as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Surgeons of Edinburgh.
He credits his friends, family, and education for a large part of his success. Damon grew up in a small house in Spokane, the son of teachers. Although his family was not wealthy, Damon’s parents valued education and encouraged ambition. He says he learned “you don’t have to grow up or live in New York, London, Paris, or Tokyo to invent something that can have an impact on the world.”
He attended Washington State University on an athletic scholarship, as a three-year starter on varsity basketball and as a varsity baseball player. As part of his scholarship, he swept the floors of Bohler Gymnasium, which meant he often didn’t get to his studies until late at night. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in zoology.
Damon fondly recalls his teachers at WSU, including anthropology professor Richard “Doc” Daugherty and especially zoology professor Herbert Eastlick, who insisted academics came before all else. Damon would take his anatomy homework on basketball and baseball road trips, including a memorable voyage to San Francisco. Damon would go into the hotel bathroom, turn on the fan for formaldehyde fumes, dissect an animal specimen, and hang it in a bag outside his room.
In a rush to get to a Stanford game, though, “I jumped up, packed everything and ran down. All of sudden it dawned on me as we were going down the road that I had left it hanging outside the window. That story hit the front page of the San Francisco papers and up and down the coast.”
Following dentistry school and a stint in Vietnam, Damon carried his work ethic into his Spokane orthodontic practice. His son, also an orthodontist, works with him, and Damon continues to improve the Damon System. The sixth generation of the braces features completely translucent brackets for aesthetic appeal.
And he’s not slowing down. The careful observation that led Damon to develop the system also leads him to believe that adjustments with the Damon System might help breathing problems such as sleep apnea. He has contacted several institutions to analyze his data.
Damon says he plans to keep expanding the possibilities, never wanting to do less than the best for his patients, and inspired by his WSU friends and instructors.
“I say, ‘Gosh, I could have done more. I’ve done the best I can do, but next time I’m going to be even better.’ It’s always driven me, whether it’s in sports, academics, or life,” says Damon, with a glowing smile. “That’s why in my fortieth year as an orthodontist I love it more than ever.”