Jim Wilson ’66 says Davidson was like a nurturing estuary—the place where salt water and fresh water come together. It offered a protective environment and also his first experience of feeling intellectually challenged. So much so, he wondered if he would be able to finish.
Wilson came to Davidson intending to play football, but a chronic illness prevented him from fulfilling that obligation. He also wrestled for a year. The three-letter high school athlete had always envisioned college to be about playing sports, so as his path shifted, so did he. He had another focus, too, as he and his wife Sara got married sophomore year, and the couple’s first child, a son, was born before Wilson finished at Davidson.
“Davidson empowered me and cultivated in me an intellectual curiosity and a joy that comes with acquiring new tools,” he said. “I had this epiphany that I could do some things in this world. I had to reframe myself.”
This so-called “reframe” led him to medicine, teaching and research.
After attending the University of North Carolina School of Dentistry, Wilson went into private practice, and he participated in church-sponsored mission trips, leading him to wonder if there was something more he could be doing. In 2001, he changed course, from direct engagement with patients to teaching residents in the MD/DDS double-degree program at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) as they treat patients who have experienced traumatic facial injuries. Wilson now is a full professor in the Department of Oral & Maxillofacial Surgery, training students to evaluate patients, restore them to form and function and help them get back to their pre-accident lives.
“Seeing the students come in with a lot to learn and getting to the point of proficiency—it’s like passing the professional baton to them,” he said. “There is a rawness and closeness to working with patients in the emergency department or operating room. What we do is not elective; we are putting faces back together.”
In addition, Wilson’s research, alongside a colleague at UTHealth, in collaboration with the bioengineering department at UC Davis, recently led to the first-ever successful implanting of a bioengineered cartilage construct into a critical defect in native cartilage of the temporomandibular joint. This could be a game changer for the management of cartilaginous defects and injuries. Wilson believes, as William Osler said, that we are here to add what we can to life, not to get what we can from life.
Outside of his daily work, Wilson has continued to make time to serve, including during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey that devastated Houston.
“It was amazing to witness the spontaneity that comes out of people when we’re in a crisis,” he said. “They came in all manners to the convention center where many were gathered – to cut hair, to mime, to paint faces, to bring food and to pray. To see the response of the community was really something.”
Wilson feels a deep sense of gratitude for what he has experienced and for the people who have come into his life from all directions.
“People say doctors are a privileged lot,” said Wilson. “The key there is that we are privileged to serve, to share the human drama of our patients and to contribute to their health and well-being.”
Of Wilson’s three children, two are doctors and all three are in healthcare. None came to Davidson, but one of his grandchildren is studying and playing soccer at Davidson this fall—a great joy for his grandfather.
“In my office, my Davidson diploma has always hung the highest,” he said. “Those experiences are the ones I harken back to as I go along.”
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Recommend a Game Changer
Do you know a member of the Davidson community — alumnus or alumna, faculty or staff member, current student — who has championed positive change — in family, community or world? If so, we invite you to nominate a game changer. Davidson will follow up to tell the story.