A 1953 film advertising a ‘Friendly Career’ promised young New Zealand women ‘dignity and satisfaction’ in becoming dental nurses. Noel O’Hare’s Tooth and Veil: The life and times of the New Zealand dental nurse (Massey University Press, 2020) gives a rather different view. From 1921, when training began, reams of rules, military discipline and rigid inspections governed the lives of the young women who enrolled. In this, their experience was probably not so different from general nurses training at the time. Once the dental nurses completed their training, however, they stood a good chance of being sent to live in a remote area with substandard accommodation and little support.
In lively prose and with an eye for telling details from oral history, O’Hare romps through the rise and fall of the once lauded New Zealand dental nurse service. O’Hare acknowledges his debt to Susan Moffat’s thorough PhD thesis. Unlike her work, his aim is less to understand the rise and fall of the service than to give voice to many of the women who polished copper sterilisers, cleaned waste tanks, and cut perfect sets of teeth from soap while in training. After two years at the training school, dental nurses were thrown on their own resources in single-nurse clinics scattered from the far north to the deep south. In small places like Otautau in Southland, adults might call looking for ‘dentures to be mended, gold inlays to be replaced’ and extractions, seeing the new dental nurse as a source of free treatment. Parents of school children might resent a nurse who felt compelled to wash a child before attending to their teeth. One parent scribbled the nurse a note of advice: ‘My boy ain’t no rose, drill him, don’t smell him.’ The anecdotes from the nurses themselves, and the images, are the highlight of this attractively-produced book.