Dental school emeritus dean dies at 85

Dr. Erwin Schaffer was best known for working with legislators to build Moos Tower.

University School of Dentistry Dean Emeritus Erwin Schaffer died Dec. 25, leaving behind a prominent 19-story legacy, now called Moos Tower. He was 85.

“That building wouldn’t have been there if it hadn’t been for him,” said Dr. Carl Bandt, former assistant dean for clinical affairs and former chairman of the division of periodontology at the School of Dentistry, who was also a close friend, colleague and student of Schaffer.

His ability to work with federal and state legislators allowed Schaffer to help the University obtain the necessary funding to build Moos Tower in 1975, Bandt said.

Other dentistry schools visited the School of Dentistry to observe and learn from what had been accomplished, Bandt said.

Schaffer was an educator, mentor, outdoorsman and the “world’s best grandfather,” who called his grandchildren “pals,” said Michael Schaffer, his son.

“All of our kids just thought the world of him,” he said.

Schaffer died of congestive heart failure at the Jones Harrison Residence in Minneapolis.

“We had hoped to be with him Christmas day but he died at 4:30 a.m.,” Michael Schaffer said. “He died peacefully.”

According to the School of Dentistry, Schaffer received a doctor of dental surgery degree in 1945 and a master’s of science in periodontology in 1951, both from the University.

He served in the Marine Corps in mid-1950s and was the first periodontist in the world to graft cartilage to the jaw.

He was one of the founders of modern scientific, evidence-based periodontology, with more than 100 articles published in scientific journals. Most were on the topic of periodontal regeneration; he was interested in finding out new ways to reattach broken-down gum tissues that were destroyed by periodontal disease.

“(He) was a stimulating lecturer, who was able to bring his own research experience and enthusiasm and curiosity into the classroom,” Bandt said.

Schaffer was known for his big-picture vision but with attention to detail. He created a dozen new programs at the University, including in human oral genetics and self-teaching methods, and also tripled the number of full-time faculty in the School of Dentistry.

Schaffer served as the school’s dean from 1964 to 1977. During his tenure as dean, the school consistently ranked first or second in the nation for federally funded research money. He officially retired in 1991, but continued teaching until 2006.

“He was very much involved in his dental practice, research, teaching,” Michael Schaffer said. “Yet, he found time for us children.”

Schaffer is survived by his brother, three children and nine grandchildren.

Memorials are preferred to go to the Kersten Cleft Palate Clinic or the Graduate Periodontal Research and Education Fund, both at the School of Dentistry.