Viken Sassouni: Scientist, teacher, and mentor

In 1968, I was a dental student and had a chance to work as a volunteer at a state dental meeting in my hometown of Belo Horizonte, Brazil. This was the first time I saw Dr Viken Sassouni ( Fig 1 ) and heard him lecture. Even though I could not understand a good deal of it, I became absolutely convinced that I wanted to be an orthodontist.

Fig 1
Viken Sassouni.

Later, in 1976, he returned for a 3-day course, and I was invited to be part of the translation team for the event. At that time I was pursuing a position as a resident in the United States, and I had applied to the University of Pittsburgh, where he was the department chair. For 3 days, I had the chance to be with Dr Sassouni in his lectures and socially. When he returned to the United States, he sent me a letter accepting me for the program at the University of Pittsburgh.

The rumor was that he was a strict and demanding leader. On the first day of the new term, Dr Sassouni got the whole class together and said that, starting the next morning and for the next 3 years, we “belonged to the Pitt orthodontic program.” In essence, his message was, “I expect 100% dedication from each one of you.” Because I knew him a little better than the others, I became the spokesperson for the residents. I knew that behind that severe French-Armenian personality was a man passionate for his work, a great scientist, a superb teacher, and a kind-hearted person.

But who was that man? Viken was born in 1922 in Tabriz, Iran (then called Persia); his family had been forced to flee their home in Yerevan, Armenia, because of the Russian invasion that led to the fall of the republic in 1921. Later, his family left for Lycée in Chaville, a suburb of Paris, France, where he lived from the ages of 3 to 12 years. The family moved to Beirut, Lebanon, and then to Aleppo, Syria. At a relatively young age, he taught for 2 years at St Nishan Armenian School in Beirut and later at the Haigazian Armenian School in Aleppo. He also worked for the French Military Transportation Agency (Office Économique de Guerre). From 1946 to 1952, he studied law and dentistry at the Écôle de Médicin at the University of Paris. In 1952 and 1953, he directed plays at a theater that he founded in Paris called Théâtre de Poche—a little-known part of his life that illustrates his love of art.

Eventually, he moved to the United States to study orthodontics at the University of Pennsylvania, where over a period of 5 years he earned a DDS revalidating the European degree and an MS and PhD in physical anthropology. Dr Sassouni’s dissertation advisor was Dr Wilton M. Krogman, a founder of forensic anthropology. Dr Krogman’s expertise in this field enabled Dr Sassouni to pursue identification of war dead using roentgenographic cephalometry. Conducting research in the mid-1950s, he worked with one of the first computers, the ENIAC, invented by 2 electrical engineers at the University of Pennsylvania: John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert. Sassouni’s research may have been one of the first applications of computers in dentistry ( Fig 2 ).

Apr 6, 2017 | Posted by in Orthodontics | Comments Off on Viken Sassouni: Scientist, teacher, and mentor
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