The world’s most adventurous Periodontist.
Dr. Axel Spahr swims with sharks, fights giant baboons & has served the German Special Forces
Sydney Dental Hospital’s Professor Axel Spahr would resent the suggestion, but he is dentistry’s Indiana Jones. Besides researching, teaching and treating patients, he has fought off giant baboons, swum with great white sharks, served with German Special Forces and the French Foreign Legion, and starred in action and sci-fi films.
When asked how all of this came to pass, Axel will say “it was all an accident, but I don’t regret it”. After secondary school in Germany, Axel wanted to study molecular biology and genetics, but unfortunately these degrees didn’t exist in 1989, so he enrolled in dentistry on the strength of a promotional brochure. It was while studying dentistry at the University of Ulm that Axel first met Roland Emmerich, who would later write, direct and produce Hollywood blockbusters including Independence Day, Godzilla and The Day After Tomorrow.
Emmerich began casting Axel in films because at the time he was 138 kilograms, 1.92 metres tall and spent a lot of time at the gym. “I was always the bad guy because I was big and I could look angry, that was the best part, because to be the bad guy is much more fun, ” Axel said. “I wasn’t interested at all because I wanted to study, but the money was quite good, so I used it to finance dentistry.”
Axel said his students at the University of Sydney were constantly attempting to unearth evidence of his acting career, but that he had luckily only used his real name for his film debut, Moon 44. A pseudonym was used for every film after that. After completing his dentistry degree, Axel pursued his original passion for molecular biology, specifically on the regeneration of bone and tooth supporting tissue, working in Sweden, Norway, South Africa and Germany before coming to Australia.
It was in South Africa, he studied the teeth of crocodiles, elephants, wild pigs, great white sharks, and the especially large chacma baboons, which can weigh more than 50 kilograms with seven centimetre canine teeth. “I still have the scars on my hands and legs because sometimes the baboons would wake up too early and the anaesthetist was not attentive enough,” Axel said. “They were quite clever because they would wait until they were back 100 per cent and then jump at you.”
While studying shark tooth development, it was Axel’s unenviable role to dive and retrieve sharks that had been inadvertently trapped and killed in nets. “Sometimes, accidentally I jumped in and discovered that they were not really quite dead,” he said. “That was the tough part of the job and was a bit scary sometimes.”
Axel enjoys talking about his military service even less than his former acting career, describing it as a horrible time in his life, and said only that his compulsory conscription led to Special Forces training and service with the French Foreign Legion. After publishing hundreds of articles in academic journals, establishing a first of its kind microbiology lab in Germany and receiving countless awards and prizes, Axel and his family decided to move to Sydney in 2010, where he is now the Head of Periodontics at Sydney Dental Hospital the University of Sydney.
In these roles, Axel’s primary focus is on his lifelong passion for bone and tissue regeneration, as well as the association of periodontic disease and systemic disease. He has already completely overhauled the undergraduate program for periodontics and is now working on doing the same for the post graduate program. “My whole dental career happened accidentally from beginning to end, but really I have been so lucky,” he said. “It has allowed me to always work scientifically with research and clinically with patients at the same time and you really need to do both.