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Gertrude Tank Oral History Interview, February 4, 1984

Oregon State University
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SL: First of all I would like for you to go ahead and tell us your name, 00:02:0000:01:00the title and the position that you held at OSU.

GT: I'm Gertrude Tank. I was an Associate Professor of Nutrition in the Department of Foods and Nutrition. I'm a dentist and my work was in dental and nutrition research.

SL: Would you tell us when you came to OSU and what it was that brought you to OSU?

GT: I came in 1953. I was active for twelve years, and retired in 1965. I'm ninety-one years old now and I kept my fingers in the pie, even afterwards. I 00:03:00was the dental consultant for nursing homes in Benton County.

SL: Why did you come to OSU? Would you tell us where you came from and why you came to OSU?

GT: I was in charge of a dental clinic in Philadelphia for twenty-seven years, and I felt I was getting in a rut. And besides, my clinic which had been very protected was moved into one large room in a hospital. I disapproved of that because eighty-nine of my patients were children, and I didn't think children should have to wait in a hospital to see the dentist. Also, I didn't like the 00:04:00idea of one whole room with six dentists working there. I decided to change my job when I was sixty-one years old. I received quite a few offers because my clinic was nationally known. I chose the one I liked best, and I came to Oregon State University. Dr. Storvick (OSU) came all the way to Philadelphia to interview me, and after a long interview on the hottest day that summer in Philadelphia, she said, "You can have the job if you want it." I decided a week 00:05:00later that, in spite of having to drop everything in Philadelphia and change my job entirely, to accept it.

SL: Had you ever been to Oregon before?

GT: Never, and it was very tempting.

SL: What did you think when you first arrived at OSU? Did you like it right off?

GT: I liked it from the first minute. My friends in Philadelphia had said, "You won't ever like living in a small town," but I liked it right away. I knew that it would rain a lot but I didn't mind that at all.

SL: Who did you say was Dean when you arrived in 1953?


GT: Dean Milam Clark was just leaving and Dr. Vera Brandon became Acting Dean. Then the present Mrs. Harold Hollands (Miriam Schull) was Dean for a short time. Then came Dean Hawthorne. I knew Dean Hawthorne quite well because she was working in our lab on lipids and vitamin B6 which has been, as you probably know, the main issue in the laboratory.

SL: Can you tell us about your schooling from the very beginning until you 00:07:00became a dentist?

GT: Well, first of all, I was born in Stuttgart, Germany which now has a branch of OSU at their university. After high school, I trained as a nurse in the Babies Hospital in Munich. Then I decided to study dentistry. My main issue was to come to America, and you only could come to America if you had, at that time when I was young, some important business to do. My important business was to study dentistry.


SL: Can you compare the schools in Germany to Oregon State? How do they compare?

GT: Well, I never was in the school of dentistry in Germany. However, when I graduated here (U.S.), the medical part in Germany was better than here, but the technical part of dentistry was much more advanced here than in all other countries. I came here to study at the University of Pennsylvania which, at that time, was considered to be the best dentistry school in the world. When I came, they didn't take girls. I was terribly disappointed and shocked because I didn't 00:09:00think an American school would refuse to enroll girls in their school. So I became a student at Temple University where they teach girls, but I was the only one in the class.

SL: Did you find that difficult?

GT: No, I did not.

SL: Did you enjoy it, being the only woman?

GT: I did. I was being spoiled.

SL: You got lots of special attention?

GT: I had lots of dates.

SL: Will you tell us something about the research you did at OSU?

GT: Well, my interest was mainly in trace elements and their effect on dental caries. My studies were all epidemiological studies, and I was interested in fluoride as you probably know, then selenium and vanadium. Lately, selenium has 00:10:00come very much to the foreground; it is supposed to be an important element in nutrition. For my studies, I went to an area in Wyoming where they have toxic areas of selenium, and I studied the effect of that selenium on the dental 00:11:00caries which my predecessor, Dr. Hogimacus had already found in animals, and later in human beings but to a much smaller extent than I found it. Now I'm very much worried that people go after too much selenium, and they certainly do. Like so many things that are beneficial in small amounts, become toxic, even in water. My research has been published in various professional journals.

SL: Can you describe your greatest accomplishment while you were at OSU?


GT: Well, the goal was to find out what these elements do. Vanadium studies had only been done on animals before, and I was very interested in studying the effects of vanadium which was found in high level selenium areas. I studied vanadium in the same areas that I studied selenium. The number of my subjects was not high enough to definitely be sure of the vanadium so it should be studied by other researchers, too. My subjects were only 428, which is not very 00:13:00many for a research study. According to my knowledge, no one ever researched vanadium after I did; it was a very interesting study. It was interesting to me to go to Wyoming and to those semi-arid inhabited areas where selenium occurred. 00:14:00I sometimes had to go to a school which had only six children in it, and my areas were sometimes seventy-five miles apart as the children lived on large ranches.

SL: For what reason did you choose to practice dentistry on children rather than adults?

GT: My study was with children because selenium gradually caused the symptoms 00:15:00which I was looking for. Also, the "Dean" of selenium lived in Wyoming at the time. He was the head of agricultural chemistry, and he wrote a very well known book about selenium. That's why I approached him, and why I knew there were quite a few selenium areas in Wyoming.

SL: Do you feel that your studies have helped you in your personal life?

GT: They certainly did, they changed my whole life.

SL: In what way?

GT: First of all, I love the research I do and because it interested me very 00:16:00much from the beginning, I went after it. I was the only dentist at Oregon State University and Dr. Storvick, who was head of Home Economics Research, gave me complete freedom to elect what I wanted to do. Because I was the only dentist, I could make my own choices.

SL: You were also the only dentist at any College of Home Economics at the time weren't you?

GT: Well, there was another dentist, Dr. Roduch. She was the only one whom I knew was a dentist in a School of Home Economics. She graduated from Home 00:17:00Economics and then went into dentistry.

SL: She never went back to the faculty at her university?

GT: Not that I know of.

SL: Now, could we talk about some of your hobbies? We've heard from different people that you have a great hobby of mountain climbing?

GT: Yes, the last year I hiked in the mountains was in 1974. I was eighty-two and I still hiked in the mountains.

SL: Which mountains have you seen?

GT: Many. I climbed in the Austrian Alps and I mountain hiked in the Swiss Alps. I was in the Colorado Rockies and all other parts of the Rockies in the United 00:18:00States and Canada. My favorite place was a high mountain lake in the Canadian Rockies, Lake Ohara. I did a lot of hiking.

SL: Did you hike with friends?

GT: I made friends while I hiked. In fact, that's what I liked. I always went alone wherever I went so that I could meet new people. I also hiked in Japan; I went up Fujiyama.

SL: Can you tell us more about that?

GT: That was very interesting. I went to Japan in August, on my summer vacation, 00:19:00as that was when our research department closed. I never saw Fujiyama until the very end of my vacation because it was always in clouds. Just a week before I left Japan all of a sudden it came out of its clouds and then I decided to hike to it. I didn't intend to climb it at the time, but I was going to try to go as far as possible. When I reached the 9,000 ft. level, I decided I absolutely had 00:20:00to go to the summit. I was in my street dress, oxfords and socks; my mountain climbing equipment was in Corvallis. Mt. Fjiyama, (Fujiyama means mountain) has shelters and religious shrines all the way up the mountain. Each level has its own shelter and its Shinto shrine. At the 9,000 foot level, I went in and said, 00:21:00"I want to climb Fujiyama but I don't know what I am going to get into." They said, "There's someone sitting right out there." He was a peasant from one of the religious shrines near Fujiyama, and I asked him if he was willing to take me up. After some discussion, he said, "Too old."

SL: What year was this?

GT: It was in the beginning of the 1960's. I told him I'd climbed in the United States and Europe. He knew a little bit of English, and I told him that if he 00:22:00found out that I couldn't make it, I would pay him anyhow. He looked at me, up and down, and said, "Too cold". I only had a sweater and a cotton dress on, and I wanted to climb at two o'clock in the morning as the Japanese do with lanterns on the forehead. They wear lanterns to get there in order to see the sunrise from the summit. He didn't want me to go because he didn't trust me to get there. We started out and every one-hundred feet he liked me better. He told 00:23:00everyone whom we passed; people from the armed forces who were stationed in Japan, some groups who were trying to get to the summit, "Strong, strong woman, sixty-five years old," or how ever old I was at that time. It embarrassed me very much because I certainly did not look like a mountain hiker. We made the summit two hours earlier than he had predicted and he became so proud of me that he borrowed the mountain flag which I had on my pilgrim staff. I had bought the 00:24:00pilgrim staff, which is very tall and has a little bell on it that rings with every step you take. Fujiyama is not a difficult mountain to climb because of the trails all the way up to the summit. You see, it's a holy mountain and it is climbed by the pilgrims; the Japanese pilgrims. The staff has a different symbol stamped or burned onto it at every shelter. Mine was marked too.

When I came back to the United States I brought the long staff with me. I still 00:25:00have it and everybody thinks, "What is that women carrying?"-they don't know what it is. Low and behold, there was a store at the summit of Fujiyama, and there we bought the summit flag which I tied to my staff; of course, you only do this when you climb it. There is an enormous cradle on the summit which is very interesting. I walked all around the cradle, which took me almost two hours, and then we slid down like we were on skis; you see, it was kind of ash stuff all 00:26:00the way down. He was always in front of me to take the big stones away. We made the 9,000 foot shelter in a hour and a half!

SL: And how many hours did it take you to walk up?

GT: From below it took me five hours. The only thing I really minded was the rapid change in altitude because you go up to 12,235 and I came from a rather low altitude; from one of the lakes down below. When I got back to the 9,000 00:27:00foot level, which is still pretty high, I decided I wanted to stay there and look at the sun rise the following morning. I stayed one night in the shelter, and they put a futon (a mattress they use for sleeping in Japan) on the floor for me. I was the only non-Japanese who stayed there all night. It was very interesting to me to see the Japanese; how they were outfitted and what they did. Of course, I didn't sleep all night because people were coming along. They were very well dressed, and very well equipped for mountain climbing. They came 00:28:00until two o'clock in the morning, and then at two o'clock they started up to the summit and I couldn't go along. It was interesting to me what they had for breakfast. They put out real box lunches which were divided into different parts, and they had all the wonderful Japanese vegetables and other food in their boxes. The helper who had been helping me with a Japanese meal the night before, helped them get tea, and then they started off. And that was it!


SL: So, did you see the sun rise?

GT: I saw the sun rise, and it was simply beautiful. It was a full moon the night before and that was very interesting because it was, first of all, a holy day for the Japanese and the last weekend one was allowed to climb. They close all the shelters because the snow will be coming. There is comparatively little snow on Mt. Fuji because the climate is warm, sometimes too warm. There's very 00:30:00few regions of snow, but when it starts to snow, they don't allow people up there because it is too dangerous.

SL: Was that your last climb, your last hike? Did you go anywhere after that?

GT: Well, in Japan, it was the last, and the highest mountain there. I climbed afterwards in Canada and the United States.

SL: Besides mountain climbing, what other types of hobbies do you have?

GT: I used to like to knit, but I can't do it any more with my tender fingers. I'm also interested in photography, and I love to cook.


SL: What type of cooking do you like to do?

GT: Most everything. I like to use Julia Child's cookbooks when I have guests, and some of the things I even cook for just myself. Now, with my fingers like this, and other ailments I have acquired the last few years, I don't do as much cooking as I used to, but I do like to do it.

SL: Have you ever passed your cooking talents on to anyone else?

GT: Oh yes, I love to have friends in for meals.

SL: Do you ever teach other people how to cook?

GT: Yes, I used to teach in my work in Philadelphia. It was a very interesting 00:32:00clinic. I was allowed to increase the size of the clinic to what it became when I left. It was nationally known, and that's how I became known and acquired the job in Oregon. My clinic was a combination of a dental, medical and psychiatric clinic, and we also had a dietitian. The clinic was for indigents; a clinic of the Philadelphia Federation of Jewish Charity. The dietitian introduced the 00:33:00women who came to our clinic to cooking; to more complicated cooking than they usually were accustomed. Of course, I had to teach them, too, because I happened to like cooking! Here in Corvallis they had cooking classes, sometimes international cooking, and they asked me to do the German cooking, so I cooked the whole German evening meal. In the class there were quite a few mothers of the children whom I saw, some others, and some students; so I cooked the German 00:34:00meal with them.

SL: What was your meal?

GT: If I remember, I made a roast out of ox tail, and I made a plum pie. I had an exhibition of cook books. I found one from the 19th century in the library which was illustrated and very interesting because of all the home advice they gave for cooking; household advice, too, and they had pictures in it. It was one of the books I exhibited.

SL: What else have you been doing since you retired at OSU?


GT: Well, I visited my family. I kept house, which I do alone. However, since I came out of the hospital, I have had a student helper from Oregon State. She's a junior. You may see her because she is coming today at three p.m. She is very, very competent, a nice girl and is a great help to me. She comes two hours every day. Before her, I did everything alone and had a cleaning woman every three weeks.

SL: Now, you said you were also on a Council. Is that true, here in Corvallis, 00:36:00until right before your surgery?

GT: Oh, I was. It was the Dental Council for the Benton County Nursing Homes. Before that, I was a member of the Committee on Aging, and that got me into the nursing homes because at that time the Council and Committee were separated. I decided to go with that (Dental Council) because it was my interest.

SL: What type of responsibilities did you have on that Council?


GT: To help the people in nursing homes who did not have the money to pay the full amount yet needed dental care. Their dental pathology was quite extensive because they hadn't had enough dental care. They couldn't request it, and they couldn't afford it. It was a very frustrating job because it was very difficult to get it done for them. The dentists do not refuse to take people if they have very little money, but it's difficult to get them to come to nursing homes. I 00:38:00had to talk on television; I talked to the dental societies; I talked to the president of the dental society; I really tried. I worked hard at it because I was interested in it.

SL: When you were practicing dentistry with the children, were you ever frustrated because the children didn't get the proper dental care?

GT: Yes, I was frustrated. I tried to make them do it the way it should be done. I love to work with children. I did that in Philadelphia too, since 98% of my 00:39:00patients were children. I started them at one year old. You may be surprised that one-year-old children already may have dental caries. They are easier to treat that two-year olds: two-year-olds must have something explained to them. With one-year-olds, I did only a little at a time so as not to frighten them. Before they could protest, I was already through. Most of their dental caries were not large.

SL: Did you have any special technique that you used with the children so that you didn't frighten them?

GT: Yes, in Philadelphia where I treated them; here (in Corvallis) I only examine them. I had one of the toys attached to my dental chair that was 00:40:00available to them. When the children wanted me to stop, they had a lantern toy in their hands and the red light would come on. When they wanted me to go on, the green light went on. I became quite well known with that. It really made them (the children) more available because I let them play with the toy before I treated them. I absolutely adhered to the signal because, otherwise, I would 00:41:00have lost their trust in me. And also, when children had to wait, I always saw that they didn't have to wait long. I gave them crayons and paper to make pictures, and it was very interesting because whatever they may have been frightened of, they made it much larger in the pictures. For instance, the instruments and me, or the dental chair, or whatever they didn't like. Our psychologist was very interested in that and my whole office was decorated on the wall with those drawings.

SL: They loved to see their drawing on the wall, I'm sure. Do you have any other things about your work at OSU or your practice that you'd like to add to our interview?


GT: I found out something very interesting, that children who had fluoride; and this had been found in similar studies before me, had a reduction in caries in primary teeth from 40-60%. When I had Oregon or Corvallis children as subjects, 00:43:00Albany was my control town. We do not have enough fluoridation in Oregon, unfortunately. I've talked to the Senate three times already, in the time before and after I retired about having fluoridation all over the state but it never was approved. I'm really sorry about that because it would save a lot of pain, destruction and money.

SL: But what you did did have a tremendous impact on a lot of families. That's very good. Do you have anything else you would like to add?

GT: Well, what do you want to know? You ask me questions.


SL: I've asked you all the questions I'd like to and I was going to end the tape, but I wanted to know if you had anything else you'd like to add.

GT: Well, there was a lot in my research that was interesting. For instance, I found out that the children who were nursed by their mother more than three months had a significantly greater reduction of dental caries in their primary teeth. That was of special national interest because studies of that type had never been made. However, I had a little over 200 children who were nursed 00:45:00longer than three months, which was a whole lot for the total number of children I saw. It's not a significant number because you need very many more subjects to prove a point in dental research. However, it made quite a show around the country and I had many letters suggesting investigating this. Other researchers wondered why the children here are so much more breastfed than the average children, in the United States. Some very well known nutritionists like Mayer 00:46:00from Harvard, asked me how it was that so many children were breastfed here. I told him that I thought the reason was the recommendations of the physicians and obstetricians after the birth.

We have an average community. We have many college mothers, and I found that the mothers who had been in college were much more apt to breastfeed their children at that time than other women. The children in Corvallis are very lucky because their dental caries are reduced significantly by the fluoride alone. The water 00:47:00of Corvallis was fluoridated in 1953, before I came. Caries were still more reduced by babies being breastfed more than three months. However, it was the only study in the whole United States that I knew of so more studies were needed to prove my point. But it certainly created quite a sensation. An excerpt of my studies was published at that time in the Parents Magazine because they had editors who found it interesting. I had huge correspondence about that.


SL: I am just curious. You met you husband in Pennsylvania or Oregon?

GT: No, I met my husband in Germany.

SL: So did he come over with you?

GT: No, I'm divorced.

SL: Then he stayed in Germany?

GT: He stayed in Germany.

SL: So you came over alone?

GT: With my child. My child is now sixty-two years old and is a grandmother. I have great grandchildren.

SL: How many grandchildren do you have?

GT: Great Grandchildren?

SL: Yes.

GT: Two great grandchildren and two grandsons and only one daughter. And my youngest grandson has never had dental caries in his whole life because his 00:49:00mother was the daughter of a dentist and she knew what to do. He had fluoride from birth. The region where he was born was not fluoridated so he had it in his food and he still, to this day, never has had dental caries. My oldest grandson has had only two fillings in his life. Nutrition and fluoride helped a great deal. There are good examples of what good nutrition, very low sugar intake, and otherwise balanced nutrition and fluoridation of the water supply and fluoride 00:50:00intake does to your teeth.

SL: That sounds like a good ending. That last statement was excellent. Thank you very much for the interview.

GT: Oh, you're welcome. I'm sorry I was hesitant sometimes.

SL: Oh, no, that's fine. That's just fine. It was very nice meeting you.