A life less ordinary

14 November, 2014

Asked to reflect on a lifelong career in dentistry notable for many achievements, Professor Bill Saunders immediately chooses one memory that stands out above all others.

Sitting in the dean of dental faculty’s office at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, where he takes over from Professor Richard Ibbetson this month [October], Professor Saunders recalls the journey from this very place back to Dundee when he was an aspiring dental academic.

“I sat the examination here for my Fellowship rather late, 12 years after I had graduated, because instead of doing my house jobs, I had gone straight into the Royal Air Force,” said Professor Saunders.

“I still remember them reading out our numbers, and thinking: Wow, I’ve passed!”

“I came back to Dundee on the train that day, and I must have been grinning from ear to ear because a woman opposite me told me I looked very happy and asked what had happened to me. I explained that I’d just passed the most important exam I’d ever taken in my life and how delighted I was and how important it was to my career. Then the whole carriage burst into spontaneous applause.” Professor Saunders knew that the Fellowship was essential to furthering his future in senior academia and his career as a consultant, which took him from Dundee to Glasgow and back, becoming the UK’s first professor of endodontology in the process.

Early aspirations

It’s a career which has its roots in some orthodontic work Professor Saunders had done in his childhood.

“I must have only been about 12 years old when I had that treatment, and ever since then I wanted to go into dentistry,” said Professor Saunders. “I’m not quite sure why, because there were no other dentists in the family – in fact, my father was a serving RAF officer and there was more of an expectation that I would follow him into a career in the services.”

After a peripatetic childhood moving both within the UK as well as overseas because of his father’s postings, the aspiring dentist attended the Royal Dental Hospital in London in 1966. Immediately upon qualification, though, he joined the RAF on a cadetship.

“Maybe I thought I’d please my father by joining up, as he was very service orientated,” said Professor Saunders. “I did a five-year short service commission, which included two years at Kinloss in the north of Scotland, and then three years in Germany – protecting us from the Soviet hordes.

“In fact, the quality of dentistry in the RAF was very high, and I managed to develop some good clinical skills. I even earned my pilot’s licence, but didn’t keep it up.”

Big decision

Next stop for Professor Saunders was first working as an associate and then setting up his own practice near Southampton, which proved successful, but left him yearning for more from his profession.

“The fact is that after six years running my practice, I was extremely busy but unable to expand and actually feeling quite isolated. That’s when I made a big decision to abandon the practice, because I wanted more out of dentistry.

“I tracked down my former senior lecturer, Ivan Curzon, who was by then a professor at King’s College London, to ask for his advice. He was very helpful and told me ‘We need people in academia, so if you’re interested you should apply.’ I did, and that’s how I ended up in Dundee in 1981.”

Professor Saunders was appointed to a lectureship in conservative dentistry at Dundee Dental School, where he also completed higher training in restorative dentistry and a PhD – as well as his Fellowship from the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.

Then it was on to Glasgow Dental School in 1988, as a senior lecturer, where he rose through the ranks and in 1993 he was granted a personal chair in clinical practice.

“By 1995 I was concentrating my clinical practice in endodontology, so I decided I would ask if I could change it to a personal chair in endo, and that was the first of its kind in the UK.”

Focus on endodontology

Endodontology had become the main focus of Professor Saunders’ research and clinical practice, and his work in this area is one of the aspects he’s most proud about contributing to.

“One of my motivations was that I always wanted to make endo easier for the general practitioner. That was always my main aim,” he said.

“I wanted to find out more about the science of endodontology and transfer that knowledge to clinical practice, to make it better first and foremost for the patients, but also to make sure that dentists are able to do the best job they could.”

In 2000, Professor Saunders returned to Dundee, this time as dean of the dental school.

“I loved that role. We had a strong team and a committed staff both on the academic and NHS sides,” he said. “It was a great place to work and I had a lot of support from the then principal, Sir Alan Langlands, and we had a ball. For a couple of years we were voted the number one dental school in the country, so it was very rewarding.”

Fresh challenges

Another highlight during this period was the opportunity to contribute to the design of the purpose-built campus for the new Aberdeen Dental School. Professor Saunders helped to design both the curriculum and also with input into the infrastructure of the school’s buildings and facilities.

After a brief fling with retirement, Professor Saunders is prepared for a fresh challenge in his role as dean of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh’s dental faculty.

“I wasn’t particularly ready to retire,” said Professor Saunders. “I enjoyed playing a bit more golf, and I didn’t miss the clinical side as much as I thought I would, but I still enjoy being at the forefront of what goes on in both Scottish and British dentistry, and this is an opportunity to continue that.

“I was still on the Dental Council here, for my third term, and I’m a great supporter of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh. I think it’s a wonderful institution in terms of what it brings to the profession.”

In his three-year term as dean of the dental faculty, Professor Saunders is keen to build on the College’s reputation for education and assessment in dentistry specialties, and to ensure it follows contemporary assessment procedures.

International growth is also on the agenda.

“We already have conjoint exams within the UK, but we’re looking for other opportunities overseas,” said Professor Saunders. “We have recently negotiated being involved with training in Bahrain, in my specialty, and we have signed an agreement in Kuala Lumpur for a programme in Malaysia.

“We are working worldwide, with great strength in the Middle East, Asia, Australasia and also in North America, but I would like to see us do more in west and south Africa – these are areas where we haven’t invested anything on the dental side and I would like to see something happen there.”

In whatever direction he plans to take the faculty, Professor Saunders is keenly aware of the international reputation of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.

“It’s easy to say the name carries a lot of influence, and of course it does, but that comes with a caveat, that we must maintain that reputation, but also continue to modernise,” he said.

“This college has never ever rested on its laurels, it has always worked very hard to ensure that we always have the most clear cut of modern assessment and training, that’s our main focus and we have wonderful people here to ensure that happens.”

When he’s not atten
ding college committees and boards, Professor Saunders has plenty of other plans to fill the gaps after a lifetime in dentistry.

“As well as my golf, I have a great passion for Scottish arts and go to a lot of galleries, and I’m thinking about trying my own hand as an artist,” he said. “I’m also keen to get into photography, or even study a new language. But I’m not ready to give up my role in dentistry quite yet.”

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