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Moss retires after 40 years as dentist

Was first woman graduate at MUSC dental school

Posted: April 10, 2014 5:44 p.m.
Updated: April 11, 2014 5:00 a.m.

In January, Dr. Cathy Moss, the first woman to graduate from the College of Dental Medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC), retired from a 40-year career in dentistry. Approximately 30 of those years were spent in Camden at what is now known as Drs. Moss & Owens dental practice, the practice of Dr. Moss and her late husband, Dr. William L. Owen III.

Moss credits her interest in a career in dentistry to her mother, Orline Moss.

“A short article in the newspaper was describing the (first) class of the dental school in Charleston (at MUSC). Mother saw that and she sent that to me in a letter -- she always sent me clippings from the paper of things she thought that I should read. That was what got the ball rolling,” Moss said.

Moss received that letter while a sophomore at Clemson University where she was majoring in Biological Science. Before receiving her mother’s letter and speaking with a childhood friend who was also considering dental school, Moss had never considered being a dentist.

“It wasn’t by plan … it wasn’t by my plan. It was the opportunities and ideas coming together to make it happen. If you just let life lead, you will usually find the right direction because you are usually led to the people and situations where you have commonalty,” Moss said.

Dr. Moss recalled going to her interview for dental school at MUSC with her aunt, and trying to navigate the four hour trip to Charleston from the Upstate. At that time, Moss only knew of two female dentists in South Carolina. Neither of them practiced, but both were married to dentists. Moss said she never considered taking the same course of action.

“A faculty member at the dental school asked me during my interview, ‘Ms. Moss, do you want to come to dental school … to marry a dentist?’ I didn’t even think about that. It kind of stunned me and I said ‘No sir, there are easier ways of getting married than going to dental school,” Moss recalled, laughing. “He (the interviewer) let it go. His son happened to be in my class, through the years we’ve laughed about that. Now you couldn’t ask someone that.”

MUSC accepted Moss into its dental program and she began school in the fall of 1970 after graduating from Clemson University. She was the only woman.

“It wasn’t difficult; I never remember it being difficult,” Moss said about being the only woman, saying she believes her time at Clemson University helped prepare her for that fact. “There were not that many women at Clemson when I was there. I could count on one hand the number of girls in my classes and sometimes I was the only girl in my classes … It really prepared me, being at Clemson with so few women. I was the only woman in the dental school, the only one.”

While being the only woman in the dental class did not affect Moss, it did cause some problems when it came to enforcing a dress code.

“I think they didn’t know what to do with me,” Moss said, laughing again.

School officials weren’t sure how to enforce the school’s dress code for her because a dress code had not been created for women in the dental program.

“I just didn’t want to be treated differently than the other dental students,” Moss said.

While at MUSC, Moss would meet her husband, though they didn’t start dating until years later.

“My husband grew up here (in Camden) and he was a dentist, also,” Moss said. “We married after I had finished dentist school and just before he finished.”

Dr. Moss worked in Columbia while her husband worked in Elgin. Because the office in Elgin was not busy enough, they considered moving to Camden to replace a dentist who was about to retire.

“This seemed to be ready made for us,” Moss said about how seamlessly things worked out in their move to Camden.

Drs. Moss and Owen worked side-by-side at their new practice. Moss recalled how she and her husband had to juggle schedules to make sure their three children -- two daughters and a son -- were taken care of.

“In order to work, I had to make sure that the children were covered. That required a little more effort with my husband and I both being dentists. When our children were very young, we tried to make our schedules so that one of us was home early and the other was home late,” Moss said.

Moss said she was aware that some people disapproved of her method.

“A lot of people thought that that was not what a good mother would do, but I knew women who worked. I didn’t ever find that it was a detriment to my children … if anything it was an incentive and an example,” she said.

In fact, Moss always planned to work while she was able.

“I never considered not working, ever, even with three kids. It was just not an option to not work in my family. That was just the way we did it,” Moss said, adding that her parents taught her the value of working when she was younger. “(My mother) would always caution me that there were no guarantees in life, that you can’t depend on somebody else being able to take care of you. I think by the time that she was coming along, there had been a war (and) a lot of men were killed and didn’t come home. Maybe that’s where all that came from, but women were starting to realize that they needed to have some breadwinning skills to be able to survive.”

In 2008, Dr. Owen passed away after a short battle with cancer.

“That was the hardest time because I knew that he was getting weaker. It was a very dark time, a very difficult time,” Moss said about her husband’s final weeks, but added that she was very grateful for friends and family members who helped her care for her husband before his passing.

After her husband’s death, Dr. Moss continued working at their practice. Her son, William L. Owen IV, bought the practice from her and, in January 2012, she became her son’s employee.

Soon after, Dr. Moss began speaking with her son about possibly retiring.

“I knew that I could retire and that he would be able to jump right in and take care of my patients. He certainly was willing and capable. The continuity of my leaving and him taking over was seamless.” Moss said.

Moss said she also wanted to retire before she became unable to practice dentistry.

“I wanted to retire while I was still at the top of my game. I didn’t want to wait until I was unable to do it. I was already beginning to feel like I was close to being able not to,” Moss said, describing neck and back pain coming from her years of practicing dentistry.

Looking back over her career, Dr. Moss said she is appreciative of the opportunities that came her way that allowed her to achieve what she has.

“You have to make your path. It seems to me that opportunities are not presented to somebody else for you. They are presented to you, for you and you have to decide what path you are going to take. I feel pretty lucky to have had the opportunities that I have had.”

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