Illustrated portrait of Kerry Carney
Illustration: John Jay Cabuay

Kerry Carney lives in Benicia, Calif., in San Francisco’s North Bay. She calls it “a hidden little jewel with a great role in California’s history.” She and her husband have practiced dentistry there since 1985. 

“We wanted to have an adventure and start a practice from scratch,” Carney says. “Benicia is charming. It’s the kind of small town that you would want to grow up in. We also wanted to live within an hour of an opera house.” 

The couple has served that community and been embraced by it across several generations. “We’re invited to weddings and graduations,” Carney says. “It’s like an extended family.” 

Carney has inspired admiration in patients, colleagues, and teachers alike, including at the UCSF School of Dentistry, whose alumni association awarded her its 2024 Medal of Honor.

“She is an inspiring individual and dental professional who embodies integrity, compassion, professionalism, selflessness, leadership, and a passion to make a difference,” says one of her nominators. “As her dental school classmate, I could tell Kerry was destined to be not only an excellent clinician but also a leader in the dental community.” 

From anthropologist to dentist 

Born in Mississippi, Carney lived with her family in several states during her father’s academic training, and every summer they would pile into the family car and drive all over the US. “I always felt like an observer, an outsider,” she says. “We moved from one college campus to another. But I’ve seen all 50 states.” 

Her father, a college professor, and her mother, an elementary school teacher, instilled in Carney and her siblings the importance of education. “Learning was everything in my family,” she says. 

After earning a bachelor’s degree at the University of Oklahoma, Carney spent two years in Germany teaching English before earning a master’s degree in anthropology at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada. 

While at UCLA pursuing a PhD in anthropology, she roomed with fourth-year dental students – including her future husband, Tom – and had a path-changing revelation. 

“I had avoided the sciences my entire college career,” she says. “I had no role models in the health sciences and assumed you had to be brilliant to enter those fields. I wasn’t sure I was smart enough. Then, after making friends with the dental students, I realized: Hey, I’m as smart as these people. I just have to be dogged in pursuit of my goals.” 

Carney took two years to earn her science requirements – “At one point, I was attending five colleges at once,” she says – before coming to UCSF. She was grateful to be there, even when it was challenging. 

“My friendships helped me get through, and so did my husband, even though we lived apart for two years while he was in his orthodontics program at Marquette University and I was in San Francisco,” Carney says. “My life would not be the way it is if I didn’t have the advantage of going to UCSF.” 

Serving patients and the field of dentistry 

One of Carney’s first jobs after graduation was at La Clínica de La Raza in Oakland, where she worked hard to ensure that underserved patients had the best care possible. 

“I did everything I could as quickly as I could to give them the most for every dollar they spent,” she says. “It was important work. I was proud to be there.” Eventually she became the clinic’s dental director. 

Carney has contributed to the Bay Area and the dental field in many other ways over the years. She established and co-chaired a local sealant clinic for children and served as an AIDS/HIV educator and infection-control consultant for Alameda County. She also worked with the California Dental Association (CDA) committee that helped establish the requirement for statewide kindergarten dental exams, and she’s been an active member of CDA and the American Dental Association (ADA). 

Despite all of these accomplishments, she was pleasantly surprised to find herself in her highest-profile role: editor-in-chief of the peer-reviewed Journal of the California Dental Association. It’s been a great fit and a triumph of her career. She’s earned Distinguished Editor Awards from the ADA, American Association of Dental Editors and Journalists, and International College of Dentists, as well as a record eight American Dental Education Association/Gies Foundation awards for editorial writing. 

“People think editors tell people what to think, but actually we tell them what they need to think about,” she says. “My job is to make sure the journal is a trustworthy source of information that’s translatable into practice.” 

Now semi-retired, she’s proud to add the UCSF Dentistry Alumni Association’s Medal of Honor to her list of awards.  

“This came totally out of the blue,” she says. “It’s very unexpected and very sweet, and I’m honored. I’m thrilled to be part of UCSF, and I have so enjoyed being a dentist.” 

Award recipients featured in this video about community:
• Kerry K. Carney, DDS ’84 - UCSF Dental Alumni Association Medal of Honor
• Pauline Chin, BSN ’78, MSN ’92 - UCSF Nursing Alumni Association’s Jane Norbeck Distinguished Service Award
• Laurel Coleman, MD ’89, Resident Alum - Alumni Humanitarian Service Award
Find out what else awardees shared with us.
Access the videos