School dental service history a great tale
Many adults still shudder at the memory of their childhood visits to school dental nurses.
Nurses worked in what was known as the ‘‘murder house’’. A trip to the dental nurse was often a child’s first encounter with nonaccidental pain.
The state-funded School Dental Service, which started in 1921, was a world first.
Journalist Noel O’Hare hopes to honour the New Zealand innovation in the first book published about school dental nurses.
‘‘It didn’t occur anywhere else until it was exported by New Zealand to other Commonwealth countries,’’ he said.
During World War I about 40 per cent of potential recruits were rejected because the poor state of their teeth meant they were not fit to serve.
To prevent the pattern of poor oral hygiene from continuing, the new profession for women was created to treat children.
The idea to write a book on the subject came to O’Hare when he was working for the New Zealand Public Service Association (PSA) in 2014.
At the time he was researching for the PSA’s centenary.
‘‘I came across a march the PSA organised in 1974 and was amazed at the back story to it,’’ he said.
On March 29, 1974, more than 600 dental nurses from throughout New Zealand marched to Parliament in their uniforms to protest at their low pay.
They had not had a pay rise in their own right for 21 years.
‘‘They weren’t the type to march through Wellington protesting anything, but they were annoyed.
‘‘It wasn’t just the pay. They used mercury every day and protested to the Government about the health effects of mercury.’’
Equipment was also outdated and needed to be replaced, which often led to children’s negative experiences.
The nurses were met at Parliament by Prime Minister Norman Kirk and Health Minister Bob Tizard.
Kirk, who was recently out of hospital and would die four months later, granted the pay rise after only an hour of negotiation.
Two months later the nurses received pay increases equivalent to $8000 in today’s money.
Freelance journalist Noel O’Hare.