90 years ago: the first intake of School Dental Service nurses began their training (4 April 1921).
The School Dental Service was a response to the dreadful condition of recruits’ teeth observed by dentists in the Army Dental Corps during WWI. Colonel Hunter, leader of the Corps, returned from war prepared to wage another one against the nation’s appalling dental health.
He devised a scheme of free preventative dental health care for primary school children. This scheme would be administered by the Education Department and implemented by specially trained dental nurses.
Early intervention and dental education would see an end to the terrible state of the nation’s teeth. The Minister of Education declared that the dental nurses ‘would be privileged to take part in the task of eradicating this great evil’.
In December 1920, newspapers advertised places for 30 probationer dental nurses. In April, 35 out of the 120 applicants began their two-year training programe. To begin with, the trainees used equipment that had been used by the Dental Corps during the previous war. 29 finished their training in 1923. That year, the country’s first school dental clinic opened in HawkesBay. By 1965, 1116 clinics were operating under the supervision of 1045 dental nurses.
Visiting the ‘Murder House’, as dental clinics came to be known, was an experience shared by generations of New Zealand children. Eventually the service was transferred to the Department of Health but was wound up in the early 1990s. A collection of equipment, uniforms and teaching material from the Wellington training school was transferred to Te Papa after it closed.
Check out Collections Online for examples from the School Dental Service collection.
Go to the Slice of Heaven mini-site to read more about the importance of dental health in New Zealand’s programme of social welfare.