Growing up in a small town, John Thornton, D.M.D., experienced firsthand what was like for families struggling to make ends meet.

John Thornton has many toys and props to show under-served and special-needs children the proper way to brush and clean their teeth. Thornton is this year’s recipient of the Odessa Woolfolk Community Service Award.

“Most people saw a physician or a dentist only if it was an emergency,” he says. “Those early years growing up helped me to appreciate and understand those who are unable to attain or lack access to good health care. It also made me sensitive to reaching out to the vulnerable populations, such as those in rural areas, those with disabilities or who are disadvantaged.”

Thornton has displayed a passion and energy for helping underserved children receive proper oral health care for more than 32 years. His compassion and dedication to under-served people of the Birmingham community and Alabama led to his selection as the recipient of the 2008 Odessa Woolfolk Community Service Award.

“I am honored by the selection, but I also realize there have been many people along the way who have opened the doors of opportunity for me to reach out to others,” Thornton says. “The School of Dentistry often is called on to assist public health clinics, state agencies for those with disabilities, private practices and many with dental services or advice.”

Thornton says much of the credit for his work goes to former UAB School of Dentistry Dean Mary Lynn Capilouto, D.M.D, and the school’s current dean, Huw Thomas, Ph.D. He says they afforded him the opportunity to give back to the community as director and associate dean of community affairs.

“I was given a great opportunity with my employment in academia at UAB. We reach out to communities – not just Birmingham, but communities around the state,” Thornton says. “It’s important to point out that without the senior dental students and residents in pediatric dentistry, we wouldn’t be able to do any of the outreach projects. The seniors go out during the year to clinics around the state, and the residents travel with me to outreach clinics where we work together. Without them, it would be essentially impossible to reach the number of people we reach.”

On the road
Thornton spends much of his time traveling to clinics throughout rural Alabama. Monday, Tuesday and Friday are spent driving between Anniston, Talladega and Montgomery. He does this to provide access to dental care in rural areas for children from indigent backgrounds and children with disabilities.

He helped initiate the first Sarrell Clinic, named after cardiologist Warren Sarrell, M.D., in Anniston six years ago. Three more Sarrell Clinics have opened since, including ones in Heflin, Talladega and Bessemer.

Thornton has partnered with the United Cerebral Palsy of Greater Birmingham to establish a dental clinic to treat children and entered into a partnership to do the same with the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind in Talladega. He also has led the effort to institute and conduct dental screenings for children enrolled in the Head Start Programs in Jefferson and nine other counties in Alabama.

Perhaps one of his greatest successes is that many of his former residents have chosen to open practices in rural areas of the state.

“It has actually worked out even better than we thought it would because now we’re starting to fill some of these voids in Alabama through our dental graduates and pediatric residents,” Thornton says. “We’ve put one of the first pediatric dentists in the history of our program in a rural area in Cullman. One of our residents is going to bring specialty care to an area that has never had a pediatric dentist in that community. That’s a real plus for us.”

Thornton has received numerous other grants that focus on the care of underserved populations and/or on the training of students and dentists. His contributions have been noted nationally as well. In 2002 he was the recipient of the American Dental Association Dental Access Award, and in 2008 he was inducted into the Alabama Healthcare Hall of Fame.

Thornton’s colleagues say there isn’t a person who comes in contact with him that isn’t influenced in a positive way – and that his work will be felt in Alabama for many years to come.

“Dr. Thornton’s humble yet strong presence makes an impact on everyone who knows him,” Thomas says.

“He has dedicated his life to the service of his community through his work as an educator, caregiver and advocate for the under-served. He has faithfully mentored many dental students, inspiring them to provide similar services.

“I am certain his legacy will be perpetuated by his many students.”