Breaking with tradition

21 March, 2013 / infocus

Despite growing up in a family full of medical professionals it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that the young Angus Walls would follow in his parent’s footsteps. The new director of the Edinburgh Dental Institute (EDI) was born into something of a family dynasty of doctors with his grandfather working as a surgeon, both parents working as medical practitioners and both aunts also doctors.

However, despite medicine seemingly running through his family’s veins, witnessing his father’s life as a GP in the north east of England in the 1960s and 1970s actually turned his head away from that particular career path.

He said: “I think it is just an awful lifestyle, or at least it was at that time. So I was looking for something that I could do which would allow me to use what I thought were my skills at the time, and yet still carry on with that caring approach that was part of the family ethos.
“I was always quite good with my hands, so I chose dentistry.”

Born in Gateshead, Angus enrolled at the nearby Newcastle University to study dentistry in 1974, graduating in 1979. Upon qualifying, Angus decided that he wanted to strike out on his own and leave his native north east and live away from home for the first time in his life.

He moved to what he describes as “a good old fashioned rotating house job” in Bristol for six months before heading north to Stoke–on–Trent to work in the oral and maxillo–facial surgery department of what is now the University of North Staffordshire NHS Trust which, at the time, was one of the best around. Having worked as an SHO in Stoke for a year, Angus decided that oral and max-fac surgery, while a great experience, wasn’t what he wanted to do long term.

He said: “I thoroughly enjoyed the job but I didn’t like the lack of continuity in patient care. I found that not having some form of longitudinal relationship with some of my patients was quite dissatisfying. So I decided that wasn’t for me.”

It was at this point that he decided to head back to Newcastle for a number of reasons, not least to just get it on his CV. At the time it was almost a given that graduates would do a house officer job at the university they graduated from, but Angus had moved away to stretch his wings at that point in his young career. During a few interviews, the question popped up and Angus decided that, while he was confident he had moved away for the right reasons, there may be an underlying question mark as to why he hadn’t worked there.

He explained: “I always feared there was this hidden agenda where I felt people might think ’is this guy such a toerag that they didn’t want him?’ So I felt I needed to go back to Newcastle to just have the Newcastle stamp on me as a postgraduate rather than just as an undergraduate.”

Angus moved back to the north east in January 1981 and his appointment at the EDI in January 2013, ended a spell of 32 years at the same university. “A lot of that was serendipity,” he said. “Jobs simply came up in the right place at the right time and, to be honest, you tend not to move away unless there is a good reason.”

After 18 months of house jobs, Angus completed his Fellowship and moved into a research programme funded by the Medical Research Council. Over the following three years he worked alongside paediatric dentist Professor John Murray and dental materials scientist Dr John McCabe. The PhD subject that Angus undertook was looking at different ways of managing caries in childrens’ teeth.

In 1985, Angus was appointed to a lecturers post at the university as part of a new scheme called ’New Blood Lectureships’ that aimed to bring younger lecturers into an academic environment. The two other new blood appointments in the UK were Prof Eddie Lynch, now head of dentistry at the University of Warwick and Prof Jennifer Kirkham Pro Dean for Research and Innovation in the Faculty of Medicine and Health at Leeds University.

Eight years later Angus, now a senior lecturer, was looking for a chair post and for the first time since moving back up to Newcastle it looked like he might have to leave to further his career. However, the head of his department then announced his resignation to take up a post in Hong Kong. Angus applied and was successful.

He said: “That was really the reason I stayed in Newcastle, the jobs came up at the right time and, particularly for a clinical academic, if you have a research programme that is well established, it does disrupt it if you move.

“You probably set back your research by a couple of years every time you change posts. Some people change posts regularly and for them it must be a relatively easy thing to do, but for me the opportunities came to stay in Newcastle so I decided to stay.”

Angus developed his research interests in dental materials during his PhD studies and the New Blood Lectureship that was themed around the oral healthcare of the older patient, sparked an interest in gerodontology that lasts to this day.

Prof Walls explains: “The new blood post really triggered an interest in me as to the problems of ageing which I still find absolutely fascinating. Both on a population and societal basis in terms of how we are going to cope with the older population and the growth of the older population, but also how we as dentists are going to face different challenges, different populations with different health needs and how we are best going to address that.”

A former president of the British Society of Gerodontology, Prof Walls was awarded the Distinguished Scientist Award from the International Association of Dental Research in Gothenburg in 2003 for his work in the field.

He said: “For me it was one of the most important moments of my professional career because it meant that, internationally, my peers felt that the work that I was doing and have continued to do since then, was contributing significantly to our knowledge and understanding of the oral health problems of the older person.”

Prof Walls became director of research for the school of dental sciences in Newcastle in 2008 and was instrumental in setting up the Centre for Oral Health Research at the university around three years ago. Then, when Professor Richard Ibbetson announced his resignation from the EPDI in late 20’s, the stage was set for Prof Walls to end a proud association with Newcastle University that spanned three decades.

He took up post in January and said that his decision to finally leave was quite simply to take on “that one last challenge in my working life,” he said. Prof Walls explained that he is currently in the middle of appointing five new posts and he has been encouraged by the injection of much needed funds by the University of Edinburgh to allow him to do this.
And, while he acknowledges that following the first director of the institute and a man who had been in post since 1999 is a daunting prospect, it is one he is more than ready for.

He said: “I’m sure my leadership of EDI will be different, I hope it will be as effective and I hope it will allow EDI to develop as a provider of postgraduate training and education for dentists both in Scotland, the rest of the UK and worldwide.”

To find out more about the EDI and the courses available, visit

Edinburgh Board agree name change

At a board meeting in December it was agreed to change the name of the Edinburgh Postgraduate Dental Institute (EPDI) to the Edinburgh Dental Institute (EDI).

Prof Walls explains: “The rationale for the change is that we have a hygiene and therapy school, so we have undergraduates and calling it the postgraduate institute is no longer valid.

“Also, the NHS function has always been Edinburgh Dental Institute and having the EPDI and the EDI was just confusing, people didn’t know what the two things did and what the differences were.”


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