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In the world of dentistry, Dr. Peter Dawson was a rock star

The St. Pete native taught tens of thousands of others how to be better dentists.
Dr. Peter Dawson at a seminar. (Image courtesy The Dawson Academy)
Dr. Peter Dawson at a seminar. (Image courtesy The Dawson Academy)
Published Aug. 13, 2019
Updated Aug. 13, 2019

At an annual conference, a young dentist stood at the podium sharing new findings.

In the back, Dr. Peter Dawson scribbled notes.

Dr. Dawson wrote five books on dentistry and an autobiography, A Better Way, opened a dental academy, trained more than 40,000 dentists, lectured around the world and worked with the industry to create new products.

“But he’s sitting in the back, and he’s taking notes,” said Dr. Alex Kim, who was at that conference with his mentor.

Dr. Dawson, a St. Pete native, taught his students to look at the whole person, not just their teeth. His life-long work pushing the field and its practitioners earned him a special place in the hearts of dentists.

Every dentist knows who Pete Dawson is, Kim said.

Dr. Dawson died July 27 of pulmonary fibrosis and congestive heart failure. He was 89.

The Dawson family at Easter at their cabin on Rainbow River. Pictured are JoAnn and Dr. Peter Dawson with their children, Mark, Anne, Kelly and baby Cary. (Image courtesy The Dawson Academy)

As a young man, the future dentist served his first apprenticeship at his dad’s practice - Dawson Dental Lab. The younger Dr. Dawson studied dentistry at Emory University, then joined the Air Force, where he served in Japan from 1954 to 1956.

He married JoAnn Wood, and they had four children. Mark Dawson, their son, remembers the summer he got to work at the dental lab connected to his dad’s office. Dawson had to wear all white, which was kind of awkward for a 12-year-old, but he also got to lunch with his dad every day. And he got to watch him work.

Dawson remembers patients who’d come in with headaches they’d suffered for a decade.

“By the end of the visit, they would be headache free for the first time.”

Dr. Peter Dawson, seated, with a group of prominent dentists who got together to debate differing viewpoints in denistry. His teaching extended to his church, where he taught Sunday School and Bible study. He also helped develop dental ministries through the Christian Medical and Dental Associations. (Photo courtesy Anne Dawson)

Dr. Dawson specialized in crown and bridge work, the temporomandibular joint (or TMJ) and restorative dentistry. Not to get too technical, but he made his patients look and feel better.

In 1961, he started working on his fellow dentists.

At first, 20 dentists came to the study group at the Tides Hotel and Bath Club on Redington Beach. Then 30. They soon outgrew the space.

In the ’70s, Dr. Dawson held so many lectures at the Don Cesar that the hotel gave him the penthouse each summer so his family could be close.

“And then he just went worldwide,” said daughter Anne Dawson, who worked with him for more than 30 years. “He probably lectured in every country.”

Finally, Dr. Dawson realized he might not have to travel the world, Mark Dawson said. He could be like the country music stars who moved to Branson, Mo., and let the people come to him. And they did.

In 1979, he started what would become The Dawson Academy. He believed dentists could live balanced lives, have families and care for their whole patients. Dentists were the doctors of the whole masticatory system, he taught, and needed to look at more than just the teeth.

“I think the question that he always asked was ’Why are we doing it this way?,’” Anne Dawson said. “And ‘Can we do it better?’”

Dr. Peter Dawson was also a developer. He helped build The Plaza building in the 1970s in downtown St. Pete. He opened The Dawson Academy there. "That was one of his neatest accomplishments," said his son, Mark Dawson. (Image courtesy The Dawson Academy)

The family business ended with Dr. Dawson.

“None of us went into dentistry,” Anne Dawson said. “He would have been the best teacher in the world but a very tough act to follow.”

Dr. Dawson made his own kind of family professionally, though. For years, he mentored University of Florida College of Dentistry residents, inviting them over once a month to his condo for a home-cooked meal and a night of talk about work and life.

Kim was at those dinners. He got to know the man whose textbook sat in the young dentist’s bookshelf. That relationship changed the way he sees his patients.

Kim, who lives and works in Manhattan, recently heard from one of his own patients after learning of Dr. Dawson’s death. She was thankful for the lessons Dr. Dawson had passed on.

“I didn’t know I owed him so much,” she said.

Dr. Peter Dawson in his home study in St. Pete. Near the end of his life, he lived in North Carolina, where his family spent their summers. (Image courtesy The Dawson Academy)

In June, Dr. Dawson headed to Orlando to give a lecture at the Florida Dental Association’s annual conference.

He needed an oxygen tank, and he couldn’t walk too far, so his daughter got him a scooter, and he sped around the conference smiling.

“I never saw anybody drive that thing so fast,” Kim said.

Members of his former dinner club came from all over the country for a reunion at that conference, where he also signed his latest book.

“They called him the rock star of dentistry,” Anne Dawson said.

But he was humble and earnest.

Dr. Dawson always carried a three-by-five notecard in his pocket, ready to jot down something he’d seen, heard or learned, his daughter said.

She’s now sorting through hundreds of notebooks filled with her dad’s handwritten notes.

Anne Dawson, Dr. Alex Kim and Dr. Peter Dawson in Orlando in June. (Photo courtesy Anne Dawson)

A visitation for Dr. Dawson is planned from 5 to 7 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 29, at Anderson McQueen Funeral Home. A celebration of life will take place at 1 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 30, at Calvary Chapel Fellowship in St. Petersburg.

Senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Want to know more about Dr. Dawson? Head over to Instagram and @werememberthem and see how his family will remember him. Know someone who has recently died whom we should write about? Send suggestions to Kristen Hare at epilogue@tampabay.com.

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