125th anniversary of Suffrage in New Zealand

First school dental nurses begin training

4 April 1921

Trainee dental nurses for the School Dental Service practise on Wellington schoolchildren
Trainee dental nurses for the School Dental Service practise on Wellington schoolchildren (Te Ara)

On 4 April 1921, 30 women aged between 18 and 36 began training as dental nurses for the state-funded School Dental Service (SDS). A world first, the SDS was established to provide New Zealand primary school children with free dental care, in recognition of the appalling condition of their teeth – nine out of ten were said to be in need of dental intervention. The social policy of the time was also heavily focused on children’s health and wellbeing.

In January, 120 women had applied to enter the SDS. Three months later, a temporary training facility opened in Wellington in an annexe of the Government Buildings. Most of the scanty equipment in the bleak ‘Tomato House’ had been used by the Dental Corps during the First World War. Under the tutelage of Richmond Dunn, the trainees undertook an intensive programme of study, which included learning chemistry and anatomy, dental treatments and extractions. The first school dental nurses graduated in April 1923.

The upskilling of women to provide dental care in schools was opposed by the medical and trained nurses’ associations, which held protest meetings around the country and made submissions to the government. These groups argued that training dental nurses would be less cost- and time-effective than employing already-trained male dentists, and some feared it would lower professional standards. Based in a purpose-built facility in Willis Street from 1940, the training school would continue in operation until 1999. Fifteen other countries set up similar schemes.

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Posted: 09 Jul 2022

I remember the dental clinics. Our school didn't have one so I had to walk (all on my own) to a school that did have one. I was sick to the stomach and shaking all over at the thought of facing fillings done with a pedal-driven drill, or extractions, without any sort of pain relief. Today's children having to face such horrors would simply play truant. I didn't because in those days there were consequences: the cane at school (six of the best too) and probably punishment at home as well. Then I would STILL have to face treatment from a dental nurse who was a stranger to me but possibly a friend to the children in her school. I do credit the school dental programme and my first dentist (who took over from the dental nurses once you reached a certain age) with the fact I still have most of my teeth, albeit containing too many fillings. The dentist would have been chosen by the government because of his low charges. Without those low charges I would now be toothless. Shorthand typists were not well paid, attested to by the fact they were all women.