Weekly Local Biography

  Dr. Piranit Kantaputra

She came to me in the kitchen, mirror in hand, and complained about “this plaque on my front tooth”. Her dentist had warned her about just such a scourge, and she was worried that it could cause a “carry”. It wouldn’t have been so funny but she was only seven years old.

Dr. Piranit Kantaputra, Dr. Nik, is her dentist and colleague in health care. She believes every good word he says about dental health, nutrition and life style habits. They consult before each examination. How old are you now? Are you flossing and brushing regularly? What do you think about this preventive treatment or that one? How do you feel about possible orthodontia in the future?

He dresses for the dental clinic in Captain Kangaroo suits, surprising his tailor when he first described what he wanted. No white coat here, no suit and tie. The atmosphere he has created is relaxed. There are stuffed animals on the ceiling of his treatment room. “Look at the Pooh bear so I can check your teeth.”

A dental assistant may shuffle in wearing slippers that look like brightly colored mops. Multiple pairs of sunglasses are also neatly lined up for his patients to wear to deflect the uncomfortable lights. Every child chooses a pair. Six drawers are filled with little treats when the work is over. (No candy!) Even the children who didn’t do so well have the fun of choosing among the options. Dr. Nik maintains they did well despite what their parents may think. Kids love to choose, observes this pediatric dentist extraordinaire. His clinic is a child’s territory, and every child who walks through the door knows it.

Dr. Piranit is a native of Chiang Mai. His parents moved from Bangkok so that his father, a physiologist, could teach at the new Faculty of Medicine at Chiang Mai University. He was born on the grounds of the university, and apparently thrived in an academic environment. He graduated from Montfort College, and then completed the six-year dental program at Chiang Mai University Faculty of Dentistry. Not content with that, he then went to the United States and studied at the University of Minnesota for two years of specialization as a pediatric dentist.

Part of his work at the University of Minnesota involved learning the highly technical skills of a forensic dentist; in particular estimating the age of youngsters who had no birth records. Hill tribe refugees had settled in the Minneapolis area, and he assisted the courts in estimating the ages of children who were being adopted. Because of poor nutrition, refugee children are often much smaller and slower in their development than other children. The technique utilizes a panoramic dental x-ray and an x-ray of the left wrist, and is reliable to within several months.

Dr. Nik also does research into how children think. Parents will be curious about his findings. He targets behaviors encountered in his dental practice, asking children to view videos and report their feelings about them. Do the videos scare them? Do they feel safe? Is there a way to prevent their fearing dental work?

A fortuitous meeting with an amazing professor of dentistry added an unexpected dimension to young Dr. Nik’s life. Dr. Robert S. Gorlin, a world-renowned expert in craniofacial anomalies and university genetics researcher, became his mentor for two additional years of training in medical genetics. Recently honored by the American Society of Human Genetics with its Award for Excellence in Human Genetics Education, now retired Professor Emeritus Dr. Gorlin continues to teach, do research and consult.

As a professor and mentor, Dr. Gorlin inspired in his student a lifelong love of genetics research. Since returning to Thailand in 1991, Dr. Nik and his research colleagues have identified seven new genetic syndromes, one of which is named for him.

Four generations of Chiang Mai people have been studied who have the Kantaputra Syndrome. Researchers in England and the Netherlands have recently identified the same syndrome in their subjects.

I looked around at photographs on the walls of his office at the Faculty of Dentistry and met his patients, his mentor, and his work. The child with seventeen toes, the baby born with her internal organs external to her body, the infant with a clef palate that splits her whole face in half – all of them are compassionately there to remind this young dentist of the puzzles he has yet to solve.

His work in human genetics is both a joy and a challenge, and has been published in prestigious journals in the United States and England including The Journal of Medical Genetics. He considers finding the causes of congenital abnormalities a service to humankind. His patients have often suffered terribly because of these accidents of nature.

So you have met Dr. Nik the pediatric dentist, the forensic dentist, the human behavior researcher and the medical geneticist. Allow me now to introduce Dr. Nik the artist. He loves music, movies, and books; but he’s passionate about travel. He knows parts of the United States better than I do, and laughingly describes New Orleans as “wild”. An accurate observation.

Put a camera in his hands and you have an artist’s recording of places he’s been and things he’s seen. You don’t often see a scene that looks as though it came out of a guidebook. You can buy a guidebook for that. What you may see in his photographs is a profusion of pink and green, an abstract that on closer examination is a close-up of a bed of coleus. Or you enjoy the tops of church spires and maybe clouds that look like no clouds you’ve ever seen. This is life through the lens of Dr. Nik the artist.

Dr. Piranit Kantaputra is a modern day Renaissance man with an intense curiosity about the human condition, a lightening fast wit, the eye of an artist and an incredible well of compassion for human suffering. This interview was all pleasure.