With his white hair, kindly smile, soft-spoken manner and his ever-present glasses, George Stookey doesn't look much like a revolutionary figure. But for five decades, his laboratory work has helped reshape the lives of millions of people, contributing to a world of decreasing cavities and improved oral health.
Not bad for a former IUPUI researcher who stumbled — almost literally — into his life's calling, and is continuing his quest in an entrepreneurial enterprise based on the placid waters of Indianapolis' downtown canal at an age when many of his fellow researchers have hung out the proverbial "on vacation" sign.
From his first days as a graduate assistant to renowned Indiana University dental researcher Joseph Muhler to his current job as head of Therametric Technologies, Inc. (TTI) in IU's high-tech Emerging Technologies Center (ETC) in downtown Indy, Stookey has pursued a career he never envisioned - and wouldn't give up now for any price.
His start with Muhler wasn't exactly auspicious, Stookey recalls with a chuckle.
"I'd gotten my degree in chemistry from IU in 1957, and was looking forward to going to dental school, which in those days was in Bloomington," he says. "But I was married, had a child, and needed a summer job until classes began. So I knocked on every door in the building, and behind the last door was Joseph Muhler."
Whether it was chance or an instinct for talent, Muhler - whose research team identified the process that made possible the creation of Crest toothpaste - decided to give the youngster a chance. Fifty years later, Muhler's advice to Stookey to stay in research instead of dental school has proved prophetic.
"He told me I'd do more good for people than 100 dentists if I stuck with research, and I'd have to say he was right," says Stookey, who started as a graduate assistant to Muhler, became a researcher in his own right, then took over leadership of the Oral Health Research Institute (OHRI) for the IU School of Dentistry, where he helped shape another revolution, this one the growth of a dynamic research culture that swept through the campus.