Dr. Peter E. Dawson's textbook has been published in 14 languages. His seminars have pulled 40,000 dentists through downtown St. Petersburg over three decades.
In the '70s, he helped develop the first new downtown high-rise in 40 years — helping launch Park Bank to do it, later one of the state's biggest bank collapses. He lobbied for a Pier Park project that failed and a vision for downtown development that resonates still.
But he was always a dentist first.
Now 80, he studies, writes and teaches, sometimes thousands at a time from his desk via Skype. He doesn't know what he would do without his iPhone, Kindle or the MacBook Pro where he stores 10,000 teaching slides.
Meanwhile, Dawson Academy moves out of the Plaza Suites building and onto Fourth Street at Fourth Avenue N by the end of the year. It's just another phase for the dentist-developer who says he's always learning. He sat down recently with the Times in his study in Bayfront Tower.
You're a dentist and a real estate investor. How did that come about?
I worked in a dental lab until high school, late high school. My dad died just before I graduated from high school — in fact, the week before — very suddenly. There were seven children, and four of us were going to go to college at the same time. It meant working our way through. I worked three jobs, and when I got to dental school (at Emory), I played in a dance band on weekends. I played sax, and sold blood every six weeks, $25 a pint.
… I told my dad I wanted to be a dental technician, and he told me, if you want to be a technician, first go to dental school, and if you still want to be a technician, I'll give you the lab. The more I thought about dentistry, my background in the lab was really tremendously helpful in dental school and afterward.
How did your practice develop?
I was lucky in that I had the first high-speed drill in the state. The timing was just right. So I had a new drill that went 250,000 rpm, and it made cutting the enamel and all completely different. There was no vibration or heat or anything. It was all water-cooled. So, I immediately built a big practice. More than I could handle, even. So then I was invited to join a group.
… We had all the specialties in the building, including medical specialities. At that point I started to specialize in complex — what we called at the time complete mouth restorative dentistry. … We ended up with a complete laboratory. … We would go to lunch every day at the cafeteria, and we'd talk about all the complexities that we'd seen. It was very stimulating.
So, tell me what inspired Dawson Academy.
I started, early on, just questioning a lot of the things that dentists were doing. I made a decision to look at everything I did, even the most mundane dental treatment, and ask the question: Why do we do it this way? And then, I'd ask a second question: Is there a better way?
I just committed to that, and it was amazing how many things — when I really started to look at things like that — it was amazing how many things I found that could be improved. I also traveled all over the country doing postgraduate study.
… I started looking at dentistry differently from the way it was being practiced and made some major changes — in particular, how we treated the bite. … I was having small groups come to the office to learn on weekends. … Before I knew it, I was doing 12 seminars a year. … I wrote my first book, published in 1973, and that immediately became the top-selling dental textbook anywhere. And, of course, that made it more in demand to be teaching, and I would lecture to larger and larger groups. And I said, we need some hands-on training, so we set up the academy (in 1979).
How has the recession treated your businesses?
From 9/11 on and then the recession, people are less interested in traveling. Just like the hotels have a hard time filling up, we've had lower class sizes. However, we've maintained a strong viability. We have 50 classes a year that are for the most part kept with full attendance. We have dentists come from all over the world. In (a recent class), we had several from India, some from Switzerland, Norway, a lot of Canadians coming down. We had Polish, Russians — we have them from everywhere, coming.
The other thing, too, is that things, times change. We get into Skype and distance learning and all that. I sat right at this desk and lectured to 2,600 dentists one night, just sitting right here, showing them slides and being able to answer questions and all that, and we'll do more and more of that. Our new facility will be equipped to really take advantage of those kinds of teaching opportunities. We also now have academy centers in Britain and California, Chicago, Virginia and Denver. We'll have faculty that will go to these different places to put on classes.
What's next for the academy?
We're really excited. We bought the (downtown St. Petersburg) Tourtelot building, and are in the process right now of renovating. The whole second floor will be devoted to our teaching center. The ground floor will be dental offices.
You recently got back from the North Carolina mountains, where you spend your summers. How else do you spend your time now?
I still do a lot of writing. I'm still teaching. I write articles for the (dental) literature, and I end up consulting with a lot of different dental organizations and all. And we also started (the Dawson Foundation), where our goal is to take dental students in their senior year and give them an opportunity to see what the future can be beyond what they're learning in dental school. In other words, develop future leaders for dentistry that have a real understanding of what's ethical and expected of them, and what their opportunities are. And we're going to combine that with a relationship with missions, where we'll provide mentors to go over and serve the less fortunate people who are in real need of dental treatment. That's a real need that isn't being fulfilled.
What else is next?
I'm just going to continue what I'm doing as long as the good Lord lets me. You're thankful for every day you have. I'm 80 years old, but I don't feel like it. I'm very healthy. I'm just as enthusiastic as I've ever been about what I do. As long as I feel that way, I'll keep doing what I do.