Back to the future

The ‘Odonto’s’ sesquicentennial president Ann Shearer looks forward to a very special year at the head of one of the oldest dental societies in the world

06 February, 2017 / indepth
 Bruce Oxley    Mike Wilkinson

Dentistry in Scotland during the 1860s was often a fraught affair, with no shortage of charlatans willing to pull your teeth for profit, whether you needed it or not.

As Paul Geissler explains in his short history of the Royal Odonto-Chirurgical Society of Scotland (ROCSS), there was no easy way for the man on the street to discern between the ethical and the non-ethical dentist. “Dentistry at that period was unscientific and crude,” he writes, “training was at best by apprenticeship. The majority of those who practised dentistry were charlatans, many being illiterate.”

Even for the legitimate surgeon-dentists it was often a financial struggle for survival, forcing many to be “slightly elastic with their ethics” says Paul. He explains that this ethical elasticity unfortunately enabled the charlatans to gain some rudimentary instruction, which they then developed by trial and error. This led to a situation where they charged outrageous sums and “concentrated almost exclusively on the extraction of every tooth (sound and unsound) and the insertion of artificial dentures. These services were expensive, unhygienic and largely unsatisfactory”.

People don’t join societies these days in the same way they used to, but the Odonto seems to keep going

Ann Shearer

Something had to be done and, in 1865, a surgeon by the name of John Smith set about creating a “society of persons practising ethical dentistry” in an effort to raise standards in what was still a fledgling profession. In 1856 Smith had instituted a course of clinical instruction in dentistry at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh (RCSEd), the first of its kind in Scotland. He also started a movement that resulted in the foundation of the Royal Hospital for Sick Children and, in 1871, was appointed Surgeon Dentist to Queen Victoria and was president of both the RCSEd and the British Dental Association.

In 1860 Smith, along with a group of like-minded friends, had founded the Edinburgh Dental Dispensary, which was later to become the Edinburgh Dental Hospital. Five years later, in 1865, Smith invited a group of surgeons to the Edinburgh Dental Dispensary and proposed the formation of a new society, the Odonto-Chirurgical Society of Scotland. It took two years before the first official founding meeting of the group
in 1867, which was timed to coincide with the anniversary of the introduction of the first LDS diploma at the Royal College of Surgeons of England on 13 March 1860.

With the first Dentists Act not due to be enacted until 1878 and the British Dental Association not being incorporated until 1880, the society was not only ahead of its time, it proved to be, as Paul says, “a great stimulus to the ethical and scientific progress of the profession in Scotland, which up to then had been in chaos”.

Presidential business

The ‘Odonto’ as it is affectionately known, celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2017 and is widely thought to be the oldest dental society in the UK, if not the world, still actively functioning under its original title and upholding the original objectives. The use of the title ‘Royal’ was granted in November 1966 ahead of the society’s centenary celebrations and the society has met regularly over the past century and
a half.

In 2017, the ROCSS’s 109th president, associate dental dean at NHS Education for Scotland (NES) Ann Shearer, will lead the Odonto through the special anniversary celebrations culminating in a symposium and celebration dinner in March.

Ann graduated in her home town of Dundee in 1983 before moving to a house job at the Royal Dental Hospital in London. She then relocated to Newcastle and a senior house officer post in Bristol, before securing a lecturer post in Manchester. By the time she left Manchester for a return to Dundee in 2001, she was a senior lecturer/ consultant in restorative dentistry. In Dundee she took up a consultant post and ran the hygiene therapy BSc programme as well as the final year BDS clinic.

Towards the end of her time in Dundee, she was part-time associate dean at NES and started full time in Edinburgh in 2014. In her current role she oversees Scotland’s dental core trainees and dentists undertaking specialty training, ensuring their training is quality managed. She is also responsible for the Scottish Government funding for the BDS and the BSc programmes, in dental schools and outreach clinics.

Ann was introduced to the Odonto by Dundee colleagues shortly after returning to Scotland in 2001. She said: “When I moved to Edinburgh I got more involved. Nairn Wilson, who I have known for many years from when we were in Manchester together, invited me to join the committee as he was ROCSS president at the time.”

She progressed from committee member to junior vice president in 2015, before being put forward for the top job. She said: “It is an honour really, I’m very proud. People don’t join societies these days in the same way they used to, but the Odonto seems to keep going. Things like the Dundee Dental Club have fallen away, it is a similar aged society but it doesn’t meet any more. The Odonto keeps going and I think it is because it contains a really nice mix of people from general dental practice, hospital and public dental service. Everybody turns up to it and it is
very friendly.”

Sesquicentennial celebrations

Ann has been a central figure in the organisation of the society’s 150th Anniversary Symposium, which is taking place on Friday 10 March at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh. The exciting line-up of speakers is as follows: StJohn Crean from the University of Central Lancashire, Hendrik Meyer-Lückel from Aachen University, Michele Barbour from the University of Bristol, Edinburgh periodontist Charles Maran, Peter Briggs from Barts in London and Jan Clarkson from the University of Dundee.

Looking forward to the event, Ann said: “It will be good to get lots of people together. Dentistry is sometimes quite a lonely profession, you are often stuck within the same four walls. So dentists quite like to get together and have a moan, have a gossip and exchange ideas.

“We have excellent speakers coming, some I have known a long time and some I have only got to know more recently, from across the UK and Europe. So it is going to be great to hear them all speak.

“We are going to reflect on what dentistry was like in 1867, what it is like now and look to what it is going to be like in the future for future generations. So the theme of the meeting is ‘Back to the Future’.”

Looking to the future

For a society that has not only survived for 150 years but thrived, Ann believes there is no reason it can’t keep going for many years yet. She said: “It has lasted this long from the very beginning in the 1860s to the modern day. It has kept going through all the various ups and downs in society and the profession – such as the closure of Edinburgh Dental School, which would have had a major impact.

“In fact the money that the alumni at Edinburgh held came to the Odonto, so each year we choose a special
nominated speaker to remember and honour the school and those that studied there.

“So, with the great membership we have and the education programme that runs every year from November through to March (on the second Thursday of the month), I don’t see why we can’t look forward to another 150 years.”

More info

The Royal Odonto-Chirurgical Society of Scotland 150th Anniversary One Day Conference and Dinner will take place on Friday 10 March at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh. To find out more about the speakers, to book your tickets or to find out about the Odonto itself, visit or

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