Making history

22 August, 2011 / Infocus

The recent launch of the national John McLean Archive by the British Dental Association (BDA) underlines the importance to branches of maintaining records that lay out the profession’s past activities – both professional and political.

In the West of Scotland, maintaining a branch archive of records and minute books from as far back as the early years of the 20th century recently took on added significance, when flooding destroyed much of the historical material stored at the Glasgow Dental Hospital.

The lost material included archives from the Henry Nobel History of Dentistry Research Group, as well as the records and meeting notes from the hospital’s own BDA branch. The Odontological Society – based at the dental hospital and almost as old as the BDA itself – also suffered losses in the catastrophe.

Dentist Robin Graham is the new archivist at the West of Scotland BDA branch – a role he took over from founding archivist Bob McKechnie who, for many years, had looked after the various books and records relating to the branch’s 92-year history.

Robin, a dental practitioner in the same practice in the east end of Glasgow for 45 years, has been an active member of the branch since he qualified in 1966.

He became interested in dental politics in the early 70s and joined the West of Scotland branch as secretary of the Glasgow East section. Robin was elected as a council member and eventually became secretary and branch president.

However, he assumed his branch archivist role only a few months ago, when he was contacted by his predecessor’s widow and invited to clear her house of a room full of boxed records.

He now has title to between 20 and 30 books of record – and is in demand from other societies and branches who all lost valuable material as a result of the flood earlier this year.

“The loss of so much material must have been devastating,” he said. “The local BDA branch, the Henry Noble research group and the Odontological Society have all been in touch with me to see if I can provide access to some of the material they lost. I hope our archive will help them to retrieve some of it at least.”

The oldest record concerns the inauguration of the West of Scotland branch in January 1918 – a handwritten account of those who attended the meeting and the formal agenda for what took place. Many of the accounts since those days are similarly scripted in long-hand and events are meticulously recorded.

Robin told Scottish Dental magazine: “The archive material is a crucial record of the evolution of dental politics, and of the advancement of the dental profession in the West of Scotland since 1918. And it’s credit to the hard work and perseverance of Bob McKechnie that this wealth of written information is still around.”

Founding father
Bob McKechnie was branch secretary for 11 years and served as its president in 1979-80. He was also on the national BDA representative board for 22 years and, with Henry Noble, helped to found the History of Dentistry Research Group mentioned earlier.

Bob’s dedication and hard work was rewarded in 2001, when he was elected a Fellow of the BDA and was chairman elect of the Lindsay Society for the History of Dentistry in 2005-06. Unfortunately, Bob died in 2006, shortly before he would have assumed the presidency of the organisation.

Robin said: “Bob always had a huge interest in the dental profession, and with his experience, was in a unique position to make his mark as an archivist.

“He was responsible for collecting the bulk of the archive material – much of it contained in large boxes – that goes back to 1918 and is maintained to the present day. He is the father of the history of dentistry in this part of the world.”

Robin recently “inherited” the branch records from Bob’s widow. “She called me to say she had all this historical material in a room in her home and wanted to pass it on. It consists of minutes of meetings, right from the time of the foundation of the West of Scotland branch in 1918.

“In those days, all the dentists who belonged to the BDA came along to meetings once a month in Glasgow.

“These meetings were part-social, part-educational and part-political. Minutes were meticulously kept of what was discussed and which guest speakers had attended. It could be an academic, invited to explain a new technique or a representative from the BDA in London, called to Glasgow to explain the latest political situation as it affected dentists.”

Meetings of the branch were nearly always held at the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons in Bath Street, or at the Dental Hospital.

“The West of Scotland branch was an important focus for dentists here, which kept them up-to-date with recent advances in dental techniques and materials, and with the political process nationally. There is no doubt that, during the 1940s and 50s, the branch punched above its weight as far as influence in the corridors of power is concerned. We had some real heavyweights such as J Marshall Banks, E Rankine Crerar and T Brown Henderson. Dentists in those days almost never used their first names. I guess it was a form of snobbery.”

Robin added: “When I qualified in the 1960s, it wasn’t unusual to see 150 people attending a branch meeting. Although BDA member numbers have remained pretty static, the interest in politics among dentists has dropped, and 50-70 people at a meeting would be considered a good turnout these days.”

Notable Figures

Many local dentists have played a significant role in the development of the profession over the years, both locally and nationally.

These include J Marshall Banks, E Rankine Crerar, T Brown Henderson, Charles Downie (BDA President 1985-86), Robert McKechnie and Bernard Caplan.

More recently: John Craig, who was a recent BDA President, Graham McKirdy, Kieran Fallon, Robert Kinloch, Andrew Lamb (present BDA Scottish Director), George Taylor, Mike Arthur, Jackie Morrison and Arabella Yelland.

There are, of course, many others who are not named here. Their hard work and dedication to the progress of dentistry is recognised and appreciated.

Technical advances over the years

Robin Graham was awarded Life Membership of the British Dental Association in 2010 for his work in the profession over the past 45 years.

He has seen many changes in dental techniques and materials since he graduated. As branch archivist, he is keenly aware that the views of the current crop of dental professionals will live on in records and minutes to be read by future generations.

Robin said: “The big difference now in dentistry from when I qualified is the advance in dental materials and surgical techniques. Implants in dentistry now are becoming more common – such procedures were just a dream in my young days.

“The materials that we are using in dentistry now are very high tech – when I qualified I was using materials that dentists had been using for 50 years. And very little had changed.

“Yet in the last 20-odd years there’s been a huge increase in dental materials and different techniques, with the biggest advances being made in implants and dental materials. The other big thing that’s changed the profession has been the introduction of reliable sterilisation techniques.”

He smiled and said: “When I qualified it was common practice to boil instruments in water – of course, that’s since been proven to be not particularly effective. And there’s a huge increase now in having very set-down protocols for sterilisation procedures.”

He looked around at the new build dental practice that he opened a year ago in Alexandra Parade, in Dennistoun. “The reason we had to build a new practice was that it’s now mandatory to have a separate room for sterilisation and a lot of the old-fashioned dental practices didn’t have room to put that separate facility in. It was one of the main reasons we moved here.”

He is immensely proud of the new premises. “They are great. Before, like many dental practitioners, we were working up a close in somewhat cramped premises. The new place is great for staff morale too – they like working in a modern building with a good atmosphere and modern facilities.”


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