The name William Ayer Jr. may not be familiar to most people, but his work played a major role in modern dentistry’s emphasis on patient comfort and satisfaction, and he was a leading figure in educating dentists during the AIDS outbreak of the 1980s and ’90s about how to safely treat those with HIV.

Dr. Ayer died on May 31 at age 74 due to chronic-obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). But his impact on dentistry — for dentists and patients alike — will continue to reverberate.

woman scared of the dentist

Dentistry and Patient Anxiety

After earning his dentistry degree, Dr. Ayer completed a doctorate in psychology, but his desired research work would have to wait. Ayer was drafted into the Army amid the Vietnam War, then worked at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the U.S. Army Institute of Dental Research.

It was his subsequent research with the American Dental Association and the International Association for Dental Research in the late 1970s and early 1980s where Dr. Ayer honed in on the anxieties and phobias common among dental patients. His published findings helped dentists understand how to form better rapports with patients and make the experience more comfortable.

Dr. Ayer went on to write the book Psychology and Dentistry: Mental Health Aspects of Patient Fear, which discusses how dentists can help patients overcome their fears.

Dr. Ayer, HIV, and Dentistry

Little was understood about HIV or its transmission in the 1980s, the early days of the AIDS crisis, and many dentists and other doctors were hesitant to administer care to AIDS patients for fear of putting themselves or other patients at risk.

Dr. Ayer’s “most seminal work,” according to a longtime colleague, was that which focused on treating patients with HIV. Ayer researched and wrote extensively on protective measures for doctors and patients, including basic steps for infection prevention (at the time, many dentists and general physicians were not routinely wearing or changing facemasks or gloves).

Overall, his work approached everything from a patient’s perspective. This patient-first focus has helped today’s dentists develop more comfortable treatments—such as sedation dentistry—and practices. As Dr. Ayer knew, you shouldn’t feel anxiety over coming to the dentist; in fact, you should want to come back.

At Smile Columbia Dentistry, our dentists are dedicated to helping you maintain a beautiful, healthy smile and ensuring a relaxing experience. If you live in Columbia, SC, and you’re seeking a compassionate, knowledgeable dentist, please call us today at (803) 781-9090 to schedule your appointment.