Professionals versus practitioners
In the late 19th century the number of practising dentists steadily increased, as did the populations and areas they covered.
Two different types of dentistry developed in New Zealand. Those practising ‘mechanical dentistry’ mostly extracted teeth and fitted dentures, and became known as ‘advertising dentists’ because they advertised their services, usually at cheaper rates. As a result, their patient group often consisted of children, the poor, isolated groups and Māori.
‘Ethical dentists’, on the other hand, carried out ‘operative dentistry’ and restored teeth, which not only required some skill but knowledge of the biology and physiology of the human mouth. Demand for this type of treatment, however, was limited in New Zealand; extractions and the fitting of dentures were less expensive.
The Dentists Act 1880 introduced the registration of dentists and identified the training and qualifications required for registration. A Dental Board was formed to examine candidates for registration, with responsibility for the examination belonging to the University of New Zealand.
Non-registered dentists and ‘advertising dentists’ contested what they saw as restrictive registration and the need for further training, as well as constraints on the advertising of dental services. Public and political opposition to monopolies aided their cause and standards were lowered to allow registration of some previously excluded dentists and apprentices. The University of New Zealand no longer controlled the registration exam and the Dental Board was disestablished.
In 1904, a private member’s bill introduced by Member of Parliament Thomas Sidey saw oversight of dental training assigned to the University of New Zealand under the Dentists Act 1904. Furthermore, matriculation was now a prerequisite and students had to study for at least two years.
The New Zealand Dental Association (NZDA) was set up in 1905 to represent registered dentists, and began publishing the New Zealand Dental Journal. Over half of practising dentists joined the new association. Because NZDA policy did not allow dentists to advertise, few ‘advertising dentists’ joined.
It was not until 1937 that the New Zealand Dental Council was set up to enforce standards of professional practice.
Your place or mine?
Debate over where to locate the nation’s only dental school was resolved in 1904, when Premier Richard Seddon was convinced by a deputation of Dunedin dentists that the city’s colder climate was more conducive to study. By 1923 a bigger school was needed. Auckland University and city politicians wanted it in Auckland, but it was decided to build a larger school in Dunedin. The new school was opened in Great King Street in 1926.
Otago Dental School
The Dentists Act 1904 assigned oversight of dental training to the University of New Zealand. A new dental school opened at Otago University in 1907 under Dr Henry Pickerill, who became an eminent plastic surgeon. After initial success, the dental school struggled to attract students. None entered training in 1917, prompting the introduction of bonded bursaries, which increased the number of students to 103 in 1923.
Public provision of dental care
New Zealand children had very poor teeth and the NZDA lobbied the government for many years for action on children’s oral health, conducting inspections of schoolchildren’s teeth to provide evidence for their case. As early as 1905, F. W. Thompson, a well-known dentist, claimed that the teeth of 98% of New Zealand children did not receive the care they deserved. In 1912, medical inspections in schools, introduced by the government, revealed that 72% of Standard II children were suffering from ‘defective teeth’.
Adult teeth were no better. Pickerill, on arriving in Dunedin from England in 1907, was alarmed at the state of New Zealanders’ teeth and later noted: ‘Nine out of ten people appeared to have the most glaring dental defects, and sometimes as glaringly remedied’.1 On opening its doors to the public in 1907, the dental school was ‘besieged with patients’.
The NZDA, concerned about the population’s oral health status, as well as anxious to maintain autonomy and control and advance their professional status, continued to lobby for state funding for a dental service for children and dental departments in public hospitals in the main centres to treat those who could not afford to pay private dentists.