Monday, April 12, 2010

The Man Who Made It Possible - Colonel Thomas Anderson Hunter, Founder of the School Dental Service

Lieutenant Colonel (later Sir) Thomas Anderson Hunter, Head of the New Zealand Dental Corps, 17 January1918. 
Photo: Sttanley Polkinghorne Andrew.

Thomas Anderson Hunter devoted a lifetime to the progressive improvement of dentistry in New Zealand, participating in the movement to improve the training & practice of dentists by establishing the first dental school and university degree in dentistry in Dunedin. By World War I, Hunter was well-established in Dunedin's elite as well as the dental profession having served as president of the New Zealand Dental Association. 

The military call-up graphically brought to public attention the poor physical health of New Zealand's youth, at least the males of military age. Dental health was no exception. Fully 60 percent of recruits had to receive dental repairs. Hunter proposed a civilian corps be established to provide dental care at cost to military personnel. This work proved so effective that the New Zealand Dental Corps was established in November 1915 with Hunter at its head with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, promoted later to Colonel. Though largely serving in New Zealand, in 1916 Hunter traveled to the United Kingdom to supervise the establishment of dental units for New Zealand soldiers on the Western Front.

At the conclusion of the war, Hunter was appointed head of the Dental Hygiene at the Department of Health and it was in this new position that he sought to deal with the broader problem of poor dental health military service had highlighted. The result was the establishment of the school dental service staffed by dental nurses.

Hunter was a man of his times in which gender roles were firmly drawn. In presenting his proposal he argued women were better suited to working with children and they would be less expensive to train and employ. Dental nursing would provide short term employment between young women leaving school and getting married and starting families. Thus, later critics have charged this entrenched gender barriers and limited the opportunities of women to enter the private dentistry sector as fully-credentialed dentists. 

The creation of a school dental service staffed by women appealed to politicians as a cheap way to keep spending down in a period when government resources were stretched. Given the appalling loss of young men in the carnage of World War I, the resulting labour shortage meant that dealing with the dental care crisis would very likely have required increased training and employment of women in dentistry. Such employment also provided a better means of earning income for those who would marry late or never marry because of the lack of sufficient males surviving in their generation. Moreover, the chronic state of dental decay in the early 1900s clearly indicated that limited income prevented the general population from effectively purchasing private dental care. If dental care of children were to remain a private expense, they would have simply gone without. 

A biography of Sir Thomas Anderson Hunter may be found at The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography here.


Jayne said...

Critics may have seen it as entrenching gender barriers, in a later feminist-rights-driven era, but at the time it would have opened up new employment opportunities at a time when women had few choices.
Similarly the Housewives Association here in Vic helped push female rights yet disappeared completely when feminists saw it as entrenching old gender stereotypes.
Like a snake swallowing itself ;)

kuaka said...