Muthoni Gitata ’63
December 01, 2022

An Abbot and African trailblazer

Muthoni Gitata ’63 defies stereotypes as first female oral surgeon in Kenya
by Nancy Hitchcock

Being a pioneer seems to come naturally to Muthoni Gitata ’63. At age 14 she arrived at Abbot Academy from Kenya, the only Black student at the school for the three years she attended and one of the first Black women to graduate. After studying in the United States for the next 10 years, she returned to Kenya and became the first female Black dentist and oral surgeon in the country.

“I knew it was the right path when I came back to Africa,” says Gitata, who recognized that she was a trailblazer and an example for other women to enter the field of dentistry. “There were three other Black dentists, but they were male. I advised many girls that this would make a good career.”

From a young age, Gitata aspired to be a doctor after watching a physician from a big hospital visit sick patients in the villages. “I wanted to be a doctor like him,” she says, “to be able to help my fellow Kenyans.”

Members of the 1963 Abbot Astronomy Club—from left, Sue Boutin, Charlotte Witts, Barbara Hoffman, Muthoni Githungo (in white dress, now Muthoni Gitata), Elizabeth Moulton, and Cynthia Kimball (all Class of 1963)—gather atop Abbot Hall inside the Abbot Academy observatory, which opened in 1875 following the installation of a telescope. (Photo credit: The Circle, 1963)

Gitata never wavered from that conviction; however, she did shift her area of expertise. While attending Abbot, Gitata had a host family that included day student Margaret Brown ’63, whose father, Dr. John Brown, was an orthodontist. Gitata had never been to the dentist before, and she became enthralled with the doctor’s expertise in oral health.

With the help of scholarships, including at Abbot, Gitata was able to pursue her purpose. She earned an undergraduate degree in biology from Annhurst College in 1967, a master’s degree in virology from Temple University, and a Doctor of Dental Surgery degree from the School of Dentistry at Meharry Medical College in 1973, thanks to a scholarship from the World Health Organization.

Back in Kenya, Gitata first worked at Kenyatta National Hospital’s Dental Unit, then she opened her own private practice in 1978. In 2015, this private practice changed its name to Gitata Gentle Family Dentistry Ltd and is still in operation today in Nairobi. Though Gitata recently stopped working, she says she enjoyed every minute of providing essential dental care—everything from cleanings, fillings, and braces to teeth removal and jaw surgery. She found fulfillment in making her patients happy by straightening their teeth and perfecting their smiles.

And her work had an impact beyond her patients. To help raise public awareness about dental health—such as to brush teeth twice a day—she delivered public service announcements via radio through the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. She also spent decades visiting rural African villages that had little to no access to dental care.

Here, at her 70th birthday celebration, Gitata is surrounded by three of her biological children— some with their spouses, as well as two of the other five children that she raised. “She raised us all even as a young widow of 41 years old,” says her daughter Wangeci Gitata-Kiriga. “We thank God for her and her big heart!”

Gitata and her family credit her long career and success to the education she received. Her daughter Wangeci Gitata-Kiriga says: “What Abbot offered my mom—through education—completely changed the trajectory of not just her life, but that of her family, and of so many other families. She has paid for so many people’s education, whether it’s primary school, high school, or university. That’s where the biggest impact has been—in touching the lives of so many people over 40-plus years. And dentistry has been the vehicle that has afforded her that.”

Gitata just attended a dental conference in Eastern Africa and continues to inspire young dentists, orthodontists, and oral surgeons.

Categories: Alumni, Magazine, Magazine Online

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