MY AN­CES­TOR WAS A... DEN­TIST

As new records go on­line, Michelle Higgs dis­cov­ers how den­tistry de­vel­oped as a pro­fes­sion

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - CONTENTS - Michelle Higgs is the au­thor of Trac­ing Your Med­i­cal An­ces­tors (Pen & Sword).

Michelle Higgs looks at how den­tistry de­vel­oped as a pro­fes­sion

Be­fore the den­tal pro­fes­sion in Bri­tain de­vel­oped in the mid-19th cen­tury, there were var­i­ous oc­cu­pa­tions of­fer­ing teeth ex­trac­tion as part of their work. They in­cluded bar­bers, black­smiths, ‘tooth-draw­ers’, itin­er­ants and quacks. At this time, re­mov­ing bad teeth was the full ex­tent of den­tal surgery.

By the 17th cen­tury, these ‘op­er­a­tors for the teeth’ started to of­fer their cus­tomers false teeth as well as ex­trac­tions. Den­tures were of­ten made from wal­rus, ele­phant or hip­popota­mus ivory, and were only avail­able for the very rich. From around 1750, ‘op­er­a­tors for the teeth’ were de­scrib­ing them­selves as ‘ den­tists’ and advertising a com­pre­hen­sive range of ser­vices, which in­cluded treat­ing gum dis­ease, scal­ing, fill­ings, den­tures, tooth whiten­ing and trans­plants.

These new treat­ments co­in­cided with an in­crease in sugar con­sump­tion with a cor­re­spond­ing rise in tooth de­cay and gum dis­ease. The poor could not af­ford to be treated by the ‘op­er­a­tors for the teeth’ and their ex­trac­tions were usu­ally car­ried out by trav­el­ling tooth-draw­ers or the black­smith.

At this time, most den­tists had no med­i­cal train­ing; they

These new treat­ments co­in­cided with an in­crease in sugar con­sump­tion

learnt their skills dur­ing an ap­pren­tice­ship of be­tween three and five years to a prac­tis­ing den­tist, or worked as an as­sis­tant to one be­fore set­ting up on their own. De­spite their lack of med­i­cal knowl­edge, many were highly ex­pe­ri­enced in their trade. Un­like most other med­i­cal prac­ti­tion­ers, those who worked in den­tistry had al­ways ad­ver­tised in trade di­rec­to­ries and news­pa­pers.

In 1800, den­tistry was still in its in­fancy, but by 1855 there were around 500 den­tal prac­tices in the prov­inces and nearly 350 in Lon­don serv­ing the ex­pand­ing pop­u­la­tion. Some prac­ti­tion­ers worked solely in den­tistry, while oth­ers worked as apothe­caries, sur­geons or chemists as well.

Be­com­ing g pro­fes­sional

In the 1850s, den­tists sought to raise the sta­tus of their pro­fes­sion and move away from be­ing seen as a trade. The first step to­wards their goal was to pro­vide high qual­ity train­ing – this was of­fered at the Den­tal Hospi­tal of Lond don when it opened in 1858, fol­lowed by the Na­tional Den­tal l Hospi­tal a year later. In 1860, the Li­cence in Den­tal Surgery (LDS) was es­tab­lished by the Royal Col­lege of Sur­geons of Eng­land. Den­tal schools anda hos­pi­tals, suchh as the Lon­don Sch­hool of Den­tal Su­urgery and MMetropoli­tan Schoool of Den­tal Sci­ence, were seet up to pro­vide train­ing cours­ess lead­ing up to the LDS. Can­di­datesCandi had to be at least 21 years of age with a min­i­mum of four years’ ex­pe­ri­ence of den­tistry, which could in­clude the re­quired three years’ train­ing in den­tal me­chan­ics (mak­ing den­tures).

The first LDS cour­ses took two years to com­plete, cov­er­ing a range of sur­gi­cal, den­tal and med­i­cal sub­jects in­clud­ing anatomy, phys­i­ol­ogy, surgery, medicine, chem­istry and met­al­lurgy. As part of their train­ing, stu­dents had to carry out two years of clin­i­cal work in var­i­ous de­part­ments of a den­tal hospi­tal. Af­ter 1877, a prac­ti­cal el­e­ment was in­tro­duced to the ex­am­i­na­tion – be­fore that, there was none. The Royal Col­lege of Sur­geons of Ed­in­burgh, Glas­gow and Ire­land were also award­ing the LDS di­ploma by 1879. From 1899, den­tal his­tol­ogy was added to the cur­ricu­lum and stu­dents also had to pass a pre­lim­i­nary exam in chem­istry. In 1906, Birm­ing­ham Uni­ver­sity awarded the first Bach­e­lor of Den­tal Surgery de­gree (BDS).

Qual­i­fied den­tal sur­geons could set up in pri­vate prac­tice or work in one of the new den­tal hos­pi­tals. Den­tistry could be a lu­cra­tive pro­fes­sion if a prac­tice was set up in a town with a wealthy pop­u­la­tion.

In the be­gin­ning, it was not com­pul­sory to have the LDS

qual­i­fi­ca­tion to legally prac­tise as a den­tist. As a re­sult, lead­ing den­tists cam­paigned vig­or­ously in the 1870s for leg­is­la­tion which would reg­u­late the den­tal pro­fes­sion. The Den­tists Act was fi­nally passed in 1878, es­tab­lish­ing the first Den­tists’ Reg­is­ter, which re­quired those reg­is­tered to have the LDS. Sur­geons, phar­ma­cists and other med­i­cal pro­fes­sion­als who were al­ready car­ry­ing out den­tal work could ap­ply to join the Reg­is­ter of Den­tists. Two years later, the Bri­tish Den­tal As­so­ci­a­tion was es­tab­lished.

The Den­tists Act didn’t ban un­reg­is­tered peo­ple from prac­tis­ing den­tistry. How­ever, un­less they were reg­is­tered, they couldn’t call them­selves a den­tist or den­tal sur­geon, though they were al­lowed to use the terms ‘ den­tal rooms’ or ‘ den­tal treat­ment’ in ad­ver­tise­ments and shop win­dow signs. If your an­ces­tor is listed as a den­tist on the cen­sus, it does not nec­es­sar­ily mean he or she was qual­i­fied. In fact, be­tween 1878 and 1921, there were more un­reg­is­tered prac­ti­tion­ers in the UK than qual­i­fied den­tists. Many un­qual­i­fied prac­ti­tion­ers saw no ben­e­fit to regis­tra­tion if they had well-es­tab­lished prac­tices. As a re­sult, these in­di­vid­u­als will not be found in the Den­tists’ Reg­is­ter.

On the 1881 cen­sus, 69-year-old Mayer Al­bert is listed as a den­tist in Lon­don, but no qual­i­fi­ca­tions are men­tioned. Ac­cord­ing to news­pa­per ad­ver­tise­ments and trade di­rec­tory en­tries, he had been prac­tis­ing den­tistry since the late 1830s. On the cen­sus, three of his sons were also den­tists – two listed their qual­i­fi­ca­tions as LDS while an­other son was a den­tal stu­dent, so the cen­sus is a use­ful first tool to find­ing out whether or not your den­tist an­ces­tor was qual­i­fied. In 1921, the new Den­tists Act de­creed that en­try to the pro­fes­sion was by pass­ing the qual­i­fy­ing ex­am­i­na­tion. This put den­tists on a sim­i­lar foot­ing to physi­cians, sur­geons and apothe­caries. Even so, med­i­cal pro­fes­sion­als such as phar­ma­cists could still of­fer den­tal ser­vices if they were con­sid­ered com­pe­tent.

As den­tists ad­ver­tised their ser­vices, it’s pos­si­ble to fol­low their ca­reers and many sub­scrip­tion web­sites have digi­tised se­lected trade di­rec­to­ries which you can ex­plore. You can also search the Bri­tish News­pa­per Ar­chive ( british­news­pa­per­ar­chive. co.uk); these news­pa­pers are also avail­able on Find­my­past ( find­my­past.co.uk).

An­ces­try ( an­ces­try.co.uk) has re­cently digi­tised the Well­come Li­brary’s Den­tists’ Reg­is­ter from 1879 to 1942. You can also check the Med­i­cal Reg­is­ter on An­ces­try to see if your fore­bear had any med­i­cal or sur­gi­cal train­ing (see p11).

Good sec­ondary sources in­clude Chris­tine Hil­lam’s Brass Plate and Brazen Im­pu­dence: Den­tal Prac­tice in the Prov­inces 1755-1855 and Rachel Bairsto’s The Bri­tish Den­tist.

In the 18th cen­tury, a full set of den­tures cost 20 guineas (£21) – the equiv­a­lent of an ar­ti­san’s an­nual wage!

A den­tist work­ing at the first NHS clinic in Stoke New­ing­ton in 1952

Guy’s Hospi­tal could treat 40 den­tal pa­tients at once in 1949

A pa­tient is treated at Wool­wich School Treat­ment Cen­tre, 1914

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