Educator, Researcher, Civic Leader
New Jersey native Joseph F. Volker followed an uncommon path to his life's
work. Forced by financial hardship in the Great Depression to abandon his preferred
field of the liberal arts and study a specific profession, he chose dentistry,
which at the time did not require an undergraduate degree. In 1936, he received
a D.D.S from Indiana University and began a hospital internship where he encountered
his future wife, Juanita, a nurse. With the help of Carnegie Fellowships, Volker
soon added A.B., M.S. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Rochester, where
he became increasingly involved in medical research, though he never lost his
love of the liberal arts and broad scholarship.
By the time he completed his Ph.D. in 1941, Volker already had demonstrated that fluoride could be used to reduce the incidence of dental caries. The discovery dramatically improved preventive dentistry worldwide and led to an array of academic opportunities for Volker. In 1948, he served simultaneously as dean of the Tufts College Dental School and as the founding dean of Birmingham's newly established University of Alabama School of Dentistry.
Volker soon settled in Birmingham where his record of accomplishments and service prospered. He joined medical teaching teams to help rebuild health-care schools in war-torn Europe. He then worked closely with Dr. Roy Kracke, first dean of the Medical College of Alabama in Birmingham, to nurture long-term plans for the University of Alabama at Birmingham [UAB]. In 1966, he became vice president for Birmingham Affairs and director of the Medical Center. In 1969, he became the first president of UAB, and in 1976, the first chancellor of the three-campus University of Alabama System. Throughout his career, he remained active in research and teaching, and published extensively in a variety of scientific and professional journals.
Countless honors, including 13 honorary doctorates from universities at home and abroad, rewarded Volker's vision and humanitarian service, but Birmingham itself is perhaps his greatest monument. Through his vision for UAB, he helped lead the city out of its fading industrial past and into a new era of prosperity and international acclaim as a center for medical education and research.
Three children were born to the Volkers: Joseph F. Volker, Jr., Juanita Ann Volker Hilbers and John Berry Volker.