Tooth carpenters to be

In the life of dentistry students

Invite to the Dental Bawl, UQ, 1939. ADAQ Archives. Classic dental humour by the Dental Students’ Association.

The Tooth Carpenters poem. UQ Commem. Song Book, 1946. Author unknown. Courtesy of Rob McCray

Student cabinet, original contents. Students had to purchase all their equipment needed for operative dentistry in their first or second year, which was very expensive for some. It was customary to engrave your name in each single hand instrument to discourage theft. Donated by Dr Porter, retired Qld dentist. ADAQ MoD Collection.

Dental School in wartime Queensland

In 1970s correspondence with Dr Clyde Winzar and Dr Rick Olive, (ADAQ Archives), Dr Maurice (Mo) Dingle, ADAQ President in 1958, wrote about his recollections of graduating dental school in wartime Queensland: 

IMAGE 18 Mo Dingle’s graduating class, 1943 (laminated copy). ADAQ Archives.

The Dental Faculty as I encountered it in April 1940 was scattered around the George Street – Alice Street area of town. I sat for Senior in November 1939, just after World War II started. Foot engines with wobbly handpieces and reused burs were pedalled for cavity preps in phantom jaws with molars set in plaster. The students (or their families) had to provide their own equipment. Because of war-time restriction, burs were in very short supply – once a month one could buy one packet of 6 burs at Commonwealth Dental or Milne Brown.

We started 3rd year about mid-January 1942. Our numbers had increased to 9 – we acquired a Sydney Dental School undergraduate, Roma Ryan, and three Jewish dentists from Germany who had to complete third and fourth year with us to register in. They seemed to be in their late 40s. They kept to themselves most of the time. They had some beautiful dental equipment items like KaVo handpieces they must have got out of Germany when they left. 

In 1942, with the entry of Japan into WWII and heading to Milne Bay and Moresby, slit trenches had to be dug all around the Uni grounds for air raid precautions (ARP). Several of our members had nasty falls into these trenches in the dark.

We had to make our patients’ dentures out of vulcanite rubber – a painstaking business involving cutting up Ash’s rubber into strips, brown for the bulk of the denture and pink for the gum areas. 

The strips were softened on an enamel plate on a saucepan of boiling water, then packed into the moulds in the metal flasks with packers (usually broken operative instruments). After vulcanizing in the steam pressure vulcanizer, the resulting dentures, smelling of sulphur, were dug out. We encountered problems getting the brown rubber though the pink section so there was a large brown defect in the labial or buccal section. Shrinkage of material occurred around molars. These deficiencies could be filled in with shellac and vulcanite shavings.

Fourth year General Anaesthetics (GA) extractions downstairs with the Dental Hospital staff were always interesting mornings, young children often being patients. Children’s teeth in the 1940s were disaster areas – rampant caries was the norm with removal of molar remnants necessary. The patient would be asphyxiated with ethyl chloride sprayed on to a small towel folded over their face. Once they were a delicate shade of blue, they were considered right for extractions. The student had to carry the victim out to the recovery room and hand them to the parent. No sutures or any form of haemostasis were used. Occasionally, the patient would squirm on the way out and their head would hit the door frame. Nitrous oxide was used for older children and adults. 

As seniors, we still did operative with our faulty handpieces and vibrating foot engines, apart from once a fortnight being allocated to Chairs 1, 2 or 3 in the Operative Clinic, where we had 3 cord-driven electric units. The Armed Services took the rest of the Electro units ordered for the new Dental School. 

A student’s idea of Hell on Earth was having to cut Class III lingual lock preparations in apprehensive patients (usually school children) with a foot engine and an obsolete KaVo handpiece with a 1/2-inch wobble in the No. 5 fissure bur, which was all Commonwealth Dental [industry supplier] would supply that month. Trying to remove a cement line on the margins of a Class III inlay with linen strips was an exercise in futility.

The local anaesthetic (LA) solution was a novocaine product tinted in an attractive blue to identify it as LA solution: there had been cases of hydrogen peroxide mix-ups. Hypo syringes were all metal. Pieces of asbestos string were used to stop the LA solution leaking out of various parts of the syringe. 

Hypodermic needles were re-used after sterilizing in boiling water. They were discarded once they developed a hook on the end like an eagle’s beak...

In his memoir A Rocky Road to Gladstone, Graham Wilson recalls studying dentistry in the 1950s: 

In the second year of my dental course, we were taught Operative Dentistry in the laboratories on mock-ups of human jaws (phantom heads) using pedal operated dental engines. Horror stories of school dental experiences relating to these infamous machines are common. Foot engines were quite efficient and produced acceptable speeds at the handpiece […] vibration rather than slow speed caused the discomfort so readily remembered [by patients].

In third year, dentistry we began our clinical years with access to real patients using real dental equipment.

My exam case in 1958 involved fitting a gold crown on a female patient. When the patient moved at the wrong moment, this large piece of gold disappeared into her clothing. I had heard all the stories about students dropping things down plunging necklines. The senior dental assistant accompanied the patient to the toilet, where the gold was soon persuaded to clatter on the terrazzo floor.

I was awarded the ADA prize for most successful student in 1958. Towards the end of the final year 1959, we began looking for jobs after graduation. The general options were academic work, the Qld dental clinic service, or assistantships in private practices. To commence solo private practice immediately after graduation was unusual [except for those who chose to move to outback Queensland, NDA]



Dingle, M. Private Correspondence to Drs C.Winzar and R.Olive. ADAQ Archives.

Indenture LDBDA 1868, 06.7, British Dental Association. Quoted in Bishop et al., 2002

Adkins KF, 'Fifty Years of Dental Education in Queensland', Australian Dental Journal, vol. 31, no. 2, 1986, pp. 91-100.

Akers HF, Foley MA, JP Brown JP, et al., 'Public Dental Services, Queensland: Charles Octavius Vidgen', Journal of the History of Dentistry, vol. 67, no. 1, 2019, pp. 42-57.

Barton, E. J. T. (ed). Jubilee history of Queensland: a record of political, industrial and social development from the landing of the first explorers to the close of 1909. Diddams, Brisbane,1910.

Bishop, M & Gibbons, D & Gelbier, Stanley. (2002). Ethics; 'In consideration of the love he bears.' Apprenticeship in the nineteenth century, and the development of professional ethics in dentistry. Part 1. The practical reality. British dental journal. 193. 261-6. 10.1038/sj.bdj.4801540.

Jones HG, Sagar J, Marsden A and Murison B. A History of the Australian Dental Association (Queensland Branch). ADAQ, Brisbane, 1997.

The Jubilee History of Queensland.  Attributed to W. Frederic Morrison. Muir & Morcom, Brisbane,1889.

Kruger BJ, 'Undergraduate Dental Education in Queensland', Australian Dental Journal, vol. 21, no. 1, 1976, pp. 82-88.

Lumb SF,'The Growth of Dental Education in Queensland', Australian Dental Journal, vol. 1, no. 1, 1956, pp. 19-22

Lumb SF,'Dental Education in Queensland', Dental Magazine and Oral Topics, vol. 67, no. 2, 1950, pp. 11-114.

Lumb SF, The Life and Work of Ernest James Goddard. The inaugural EJ Goddard Oration 23 September 1954. ADAQ Archives. Quoted in Akers et al. 2019

Marlay E, A history of dental education in Queensland 1863-1964, University of Queensland, Brisbane, 1979.

Pearn JH, Of Heart and Mind: a Biography of James Owen Pearn. Amphion Press, Herston, 1999; pp.73-81.