MY ANCESTOR WAS A... DENTIST
As new records go online, Michelle Higgs discovers how dentistry developed as a profession
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