Joseph F. Volker (1913-1989) was a dentist, noted scientist, educator, and college administrator in his adopted home of Alabama. His research showed that applications of fluoride could be used to prevent tooth decay. He later was the first dean of the dental school at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Joseph Francis Hennessey Aloysius Volker was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey, on March 9, 1913, the second of three sons of Frank and Rose Volker. After high school, Volker first enrolled at Rutgers University but in 1932 transferred to the dental school at Indiana University. He earned his dental degree in 1936 and then completed an internship at the Mountainside Hospital in Montclair, New Jersey. There, Volker met Juanita "Neet" Berry, a nurse at the hospital. They married and would have three children.
In 1937, Volker returned to academic studies at the University of Rochester in upstate New York. There, while serving as a Senior Carnegie Fellow, he earned a master's degree (1939) and a doctoral degree (1941) in biochemistry; through his research, Volker showed that applications of fluoride could be used to prevent tooth decay. In 1942, Volker accepted the position of Professor of Clinical Dentistry and director of the dental clinics at the Tufts College Dental School in Boston, Massachusetts. With his strong research background and experience in academic dental education, in 1947 the 34-year-old Volker became the youngest dean of the Tufts dental school.
In 1948, Volker was named the first dean of the dental school of the University of Alabama, a newly established program based in Birmingham. Within 45 days, Volker had hired a faculty, established the curriculum, assigned space in the old Hillman Hospital, and recruited an entering class for the new school. On October 18, 1948, 52 war veterans began their dental education at the medical center.
Volker's career flourished as he built the new dental school and worked with the medical dean to promote scientific and educational efforts. In 1955 he was named Director of Research and Graduate Studies, and in 1962 Volker was appointed Vice President for Health Affairs and Director of the Medical Center. As the chief operating officer for all university activities in Birmingham, Volker reported directly to the president of the University of Alabama. During the civil rights era, Volker played a large role in the desegregation of the Medical Center, including the medical school, the dental school, the hospital, and the non-health science campus.
In a press conference held in Montgomery on June 16, 1969, Alabama governor Albert P. Brewer announced a new three-campus organization for the University of Alabama System, with three autonomous institutions: the University of Alabama (UA), located in Tuscaloosa; the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH); and the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). Volker was the natural choice as the first president of UAB.
UAB was then a campus of 15 city blocks, with 5,300 students, 500 faculty, 4,800 employees, and a budget exceeding $49 million. During the school's first commencement ceremony in June 1970, Volker received UAB's first honorary degree. The following year, the school received accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools as an independent institution of higher education. In 1976, Volker was named the first Chancellor of the University of Alabama System, charged with oversight of the three campuses and reporting directly to the University of Alabama Board of Trustees. Volker was chancellor until his retirement in 1982 when he was named a Distinguished Professor of UAB. He returned to an office on the UAB campus and was active there for the remainder of his life. On May 3, 1989, Joseph F. Volker died in University Hospital at age 76. Volker's wife, Neet, long regarded as the "first lady" of UAB, died in Birmingham in July 1999.
Joseph Volker was a member of numerous learned societies and professional organizations, including the American Dental Association,
International Association for Dental Research, American Academy of Oral Medicine, and Newcomen Society in North America. He
received numerous awards and honors and honorary degrees from institutions such as UAB, Indiana University, the University
of Rochester, Georgetown University, the University of Arizona, and Lund University in Sweden. He was elected to the Alabama
Academy of Honor in 1973, was named a Fellow of the United Kingdom's Royal College of Surgeons, and received awards from the
governments of Thailand, Iceland, and Czechoslovakia for his humanitarian work and for advances in dentistry and in the health
Fisher, Virginia E. Building on a Vision: A Fifty-Year Retrospective of UAB's Academic Health Center. Birmingham: University of Alabama at Birmingham, 1995.
McWilliams, Tennant S. New Lights in the Valley: The Emergence of UAB. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2007.
Tim L. Pennycuff
University of Alabama at Birmingham
Published March 17, 2009
Last updated April 25, 2013