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The Dunstons: An African American Family Medical Dynasty

History is generally not great, earth-shattering events, or milestones, though it often is. It can also be made up of the stories of individuals, their individual achievements, and their struggle to make those achievements possible. The Dunston family is not generally a well-known local family. Still, they are an African American family who managed to strive and overcome various barriers and achieve greatly and serve as an inspiring example to others. During this Black History Month, it seems appropriate to tell you something about them and their achievements.

They were a family that excelled in the medical field, producing two dentists and a surgeon, and one son who became a well-regarded educator. This family was the Dunstons. The patriarch of this remarkable family was Dr. Joseph N. Dunston Sr., a widely respected dentist in the Williamsport area who came here in 1932 from Harrisburg.

He was very active in community activities, particularly those of the local African American community. During World War II, he served as a Dental Examiner for the local Draft Board. His dedicated service in this garnered him a Distinguished Service Certificate from American Legion Post 1. He served on the board of the Lycoming Community Chest, predecessor to the United Way. He was a member of the Lycoming County Board of Assistance. He helped establish what, at the time, was the only pre-school dental clinic in Lycoming County. He tried to promote the idea that you could never start too early to care about dental health.

My Uncle John got to know Dr. Dunston a little while working at the old Hurr’s Dairy Store at Hepburn Street and Park Avenue.

“Dr. Dunston was a fine man, a very friendly man. When I needed to have some dental work done before I went in the service, I went to him. He did a good and professional job,” said my uncle.

The Dunston patriarch died in January of 1976.

Dr. Dunston passed on his example of community service and love of education and medicine to his sons.

His oldest son, Joseph Jr., became a distinguished surgeon, working at various metropolitan hospitals in Washington, D.C., and in North Carolina. He received specialized training at Duke University Hospital. He has also enjoyed a reputation as a fine medical researcher. He died in 1966.

Another son, John H., also became a surgeon. While attending Lycoming College, he was named the Outstanding Senior in 1963. After completing his medical studies, he became a surgeon and worked at a number of major metropolitan hospitals.

George Dunston went in a slightly different direction and became a teacher. He became a very distinguished science teacher and school administrator at various schools in New Jersey. He taught science and earned an award as New Jersey’s Science Teacher of the Year in 1968.

Walter T. was the next son. He, like his father, became a dentist and earned an enviable reputation.

As a child, he made a little history, being a member of the first Little League World Series champs in 1947, the Maynard Midgets.

He excelled in other sports as well. He was the starting guard on the Williamsport High School and Lycoming College basketball teams and was later inducted into the West Branch Chapter of the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame.

After graduating from Lycoming, he earned his Dental degree from Temple in 1960, and like his father, becoming an accomplished and respected dentist. He then served with the Navy Dental Corps on the aircraft carrier Hancock from 1964 to 1966. He was honorably discharged from active duty with the rank of lieutenant but remained in the Navy Reserve dental corps.

Dr. Dunston set up a private dental practice in 1966 in Germantown before moving to Wynnefield in 1978. He retired in 2011.

In 1977, Dr. Dunston was appointed captain in the Navy Dental Corps, and he rose to commanding officer of reserve dental units at the Philadelphia Naval Base.

He served as a member of the promotions board at the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery for the Pentagon in Washington from 1978 to 1990.

In addition, he was a member of the Second Congressional District Naval Academy Selection Board from 1979 to 1985. He retired from the Navy Reserve with the rank of captain during a special ceremony in 1990.

Walter was an associate professor at Temple University and University of Pennsylvania Dental Schools. He served from 1967 to 1977 as chief of dental service at the Institute of Pennsylvania Hospital, a former psychiatric facility.

He died in March of 2014, leaving behind a wonderful legacy of service just as his father and brothers did.

Lucille Evans, a self-style archivist of local African American history, had this to say about the Dunston family.

“I knew John some. He was very outgoing and friendly and was a fine surgeon,” Evans said. “I also knew Walt. He was very friendly and fun. When he was working in Philly, I went to visit him a couple of times. He was a good host and showed all around Philly. Their mom, Christine, was a wonderful and sweet lady and was always friendly and helpful. You could tell the boys were raised well by her and Dr. Dunston. Unfortunately, all the boys are gone now.”

Evans summed up well her feelings about the Dunston, saying, “They all had a love of education and serving others that was passed onto them by their parents. They were all wonderful examples for others to follow.”

John Dunston may have laid out the philosophy and secret of the Dunston family in March 1963 Grit article when he stated, “Our family has always worked together with God being our Team Captain. My brothers and I realized the sacrifices our parents were making for us, and therefore, we worked much harder to prove ourselves worthy of their unselfish support.”

The sons certainly, beyond a doubt, proved themselves worthy and serve as an inspiration and example to others as well as being a great chapter in local African American history.