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.
In eleven chronological chapters, O’Hare takes the reader through the Depression years and the Napier earthquake, to the baby boom and the development of union militancy in the 1960s and 70s. The copious illustrations, health department posters and photographs of nurses at work and at play contribute to an easy read. Sometimes, however, the desire for a good line overrides historical accuracy. This is the case with the photograph caption of the 1974 protest march of dental nurses along Lambton Quay to Parliament. It reads that this was ‘one of the largest organized demonstrations of women since the days of the suffragettes’. Those militants marched in England; New Zealand had no need of suffragettes because women won the vote in 1893. Of most concern to this reader, however, is a disclaimer attached to footnote 17 on p.104. After devoting pages to the career anti-fluoridationist, John Colquhoun, the footnote states that the author has no competence to judge ‘the pros and cons of water fluoridation’. Here O’Hare might have sought expert help which tells us that, despite Colquhoun’s views to the contrary, community water fluoridation is a safe and effective public health intervention.
Ignoring the fluoridation debate makes this book less useful than it might have been because, in a way, dental nurses were the victims of fluoridation’s success. My sons, for example, have no teeth that required intervention by dental nurses whereas I, who grew up in Canterbury with unfluoridated artesian water, visited the ‘murder house’ for many fillings. New Zealand once had amongst the highest rates of complete tooth loss in the world. Work by dental nurses, and fluoridation, helped shift that trend.
The stories of the dental nurses included here indicate strength and resilience. I’ll take one example. Margaret Mclean was posted to Masterton in the 1940s and had just set up her flat when she was again transferred, this time to Westland. No one met her Hokitika, the clinic was a mess, equipment was missing and there was a serious backlog of children needing attention. Feuding families, snooping and critical inspectors, and a school headmaster who liked to watch her change into her uniform were among her many trials. No wonder the dental nurses took great delight in meeting up and sharing tales of their difficulties with antiquated equipment, their inability to give the pain relief they would have liked to provide, and the expectations of parents. O’Hare conveys that sense of comraderie which reached its zenith with the successful 1974 march on parliament to restore pay parity with public health nurses. Followed by a rapid decline, this peak led some women into new careers in reshaping the health system. One of these former dental nurses was Annette King, who became Minister of Health in the Labour Government from 1999 to 2005.
Barbara Brookes is co-editor of Corpus.