“The face is the key feature in the determination of human physical attractiveness,” Dr. Leena Peck wrote at the start of a 1995 orthodontics journal article she coauthored with her husband, Dr. Sheldon Peck.
As orthodontists, much of their work enhanced the teeth of their patients. And the smile, they wrote in their journal article, “is a key expression in the social life of all human beings.”
Dr. Leena Peck was 73 when she died Jan. 13 in Terhokoti Hospice in Helsinki, Finland, the country where she was born and had first studied dentistry. She had lived with her family in Newton for many years and had resided in the Back Bay since 2014. Her death was due to complications of an ALS-related neurodegenerative condition, her husband said.
Though Dr. Peck’s work included treating patients, teaching dental students, and participating in professional organizations, “I think that a single sentence definition of Leena Peck would be that she was the consummate teacher,” her husband said.
For more than 20 years, she was a lecturer and then an assistant clinical professor in orthodontics and developmental biology at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine, where students valued her guidance.
“Her patience and diligence and knowledge-based ability to teach them concepts and methods were without peer,” her husband said.
She also was a pioneering woman in the Edward H. Angle Society of Orthodontists, whose members may only join by invitation. In 2003, Dr. Peck was the first woman elected president of a component of the society — Angle East — in the organization’s 73-year history, said Dr. David R. Musich, an international past president of the organization.
Selected for membership in 1990, she was the co-recipient three years later of the Edward H. Angle Research Prize for excellence in published orthodontic research. In 2010, the year she retired from Harvard, colleagues in the Angle organization honored her with a Distinguished Service Award.
“Leena had a passion for precision and excellence — important traits for an orthodontist,” Musich said. “Her broad, high-achieving educational background in Europe and the US resulted in unique leadership qualities that were immediately evident.”
Having trained in the orthodontics disciplines of Europe and the United States, Dr. Peck “was able to blend the concepts and she would apply them to different orthodontic situations that served her really well in terms of practicing, teaching, and research,” he added.
That continent-crossing background and attentiveness to detail also played a role in her work with her husband collecting 16th to 18th century Dutch and Flemish Old Master drawings.
“It’s been a lot of fun using the skills that were nourished from our orthodontic repertoire of skills,” her husband said. “Leena was at the vanguard with her foreign language skills and her sharp eye in picking out these wonderful art objects.”
In 2017, the couple donated much of their collection to the Ackland Art Museum at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. The 140 works on paper, among them seven Rembrandt drawings, were valued at $17 million. They augmented the drawings with an $8 million endowment to fund a new curator and future acquisitions.
The “transformational” donation was “certainly the most generous and largest gift the Ackland has ever received; it’s just mind-blowing,” Katie Ziglar the museum director, told The New York Times that year.
As an orthodontist and an art collector, Dr. Peck had an excellent eye,” her husband said. “Her visual discrimination skills were great.”
Such talents were valued by dentistry colleagues, students she mentored, and patients alike. Dr. Peck often made a point of being present in the operating room if one of her patients decided to undergo jaw reconstruction surgery.
“In many patients, it’s elective. Generally they don’t have a life-threatening deformity,” said Dr. Leonard B. Kaban, the Walter C. Guralnick distinguished professor of oral and maxillofacial surgery at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine and Massachusetts General Hospital. “She was an orthodontist who really understood the surgical aspects of this and its implications.”
Though her visits to the operating room weren’t required or compensated, “she really felt for the patients, she felt responsible for them,” Kaban said.
Among other matters, Dr. Peck would check the bite of the patient’s jaw after surgery to ensure all had gone well.
“It was a great pleasure working with her,” Kaban said. “As an orthodontist and a colleague she was very thorough and meticulous and paid excessive attention to details.”
The second of four children, Leena Kataja was born in Finland in 1945 and spent most of her childhood in the small village of Kivijarvi. Her parents were Paavo Kataja, who ran a successful sawmill, and Kyllikki Luomala.
She attended the University of Helsinki’s dentistry institute, graduating in 1965 with a bachelor’s degree and in 1969 with a doctoral in dental science.
At first, she treated children in Zurich as a public health dentist and then was a clinical orthodontics instructor at the University of Helsinki. In the early 1970s, she was an orthodontics fellow at the University of Minnesota, from which she received a master’s. Her studies were supported in part by a Fulbright scholarship.
Dr. Peck “was a little shocked” at the barriers women in dentistry faced, and by how men in the program treated female colleagues, her husband said. But “she didn’t let that bother her and immediately commanded the respect of her male constituencies on the professional and academic levels and opened doors for other women,” he added.
She first met Dr. Sheldon Peck at a 1973 reception in Royal Festival Hall in London for an orthodontics conference. They hit it off and spent much of the evening dancing but didn’t become a couple until meeting again, in 1985, at a conference in Boston.
They married six months later, in 1986, and she graduated in 1989 from the Boston University School of Dental Medicine. Both taught at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine, where he was a clinical professor of developmental biology.
“She was truly a global person,” he said. “She was tremendously embracing of everybody.”
Because of her, he added, their two children “are wonderfully fluent in the difficult language of Finish.”
A service was held in Helsinki for Dr. Peck, who in addition to her husband leaves their children, Mark of Helsinki and Anya of New York City; and two brothers, Matti Kataja of Tampere, Finland, and Erkki Kataja of Helsinki.
In their 1995 journal article “Selected Aspects of the Art and Science of Facial Esthetics,” Dr. Peck and her husband wrote that “almost invariably, when a person senses happiness, pleasure, humor, or greetings, a smile develops.”
She could bring about smiles from more than just her orthodontics work. As the couple sought drawings for their collection, he did much of the research verifying an artwork’s authenticity, while she passed judgment before they made a purchase. She knew what she liked, and what she didn’t.
In some instances, “Leena would look at it, and say, ‘Well, I appreciate the evidence you’ve shown me, but I think it’s ugly,’ ” her husband recalled. “Many times, her sense of aesthetic quality saved us from buying terrible pieces of art, even though they were authentic.”Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.