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.

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