A trip down memory lane

Michael Watson takes a trip down memory lane in tribute to Sir John Tomes, the founder of modern day dentistry

Last week I paid a visit to the town where I was born and brought up, Caterham in Surrey.

It was not just a nostalgic trip, but to hear tribute paid to the founder of modern dentistry, Sir John Tomes, who is buried there.

It is 200 years since his birth and the ceremony marked the refurbishment of his grave at St Mary’s church, barely 200 yards from where I lived as a child.


Sir John was the founder of the dental profession and the British Dental Association (BDA), of which he was the first president.

The ceremony was performed by the current BDA president, Professor Nairn Wilson, who paid tribute saying: ‘This week we’re proud to pay tribute to our founder.

‘Sir John Tomes had a vision.

‘He took dentistry out of the backstreets and turned it into a skilled profession that continues to make a real difference to the lives of millions across the UK.

‘He brought science, standards and ethics to Victorian dentistry, which had previously been the preserve of backstreet operators with no formal training or qualifications.’

Nairn Wilson talked about Sir John’s achievements, from humble beginnings in rural Gloucestershire to becoming a fellow of the royal society for his scientific research into the structure and physiology of teeth.

Tomes was instrumental in the Royal College of Surgeons, creating the award of a licence in dental surgery (LDS) and in the establishment of the London School of Dental Surgery (later the Royal, now part of Kings), where he became the first lecturer in dental physiology and surgery.

Finally in 1886, Tomes was knighted for eminent services rendered to his (and our) profession.

Despite my early proximity to Sir John’s graveside, I really knew little if anything about him until I went to work at the BDA 25 years ago.

A tale of our times

So why, you may ask, am I writing about a dentist born 200 years ago, who died in 1895?

My reason is that we are rapidly losing our professional way.

Barely a week goes by when I don’t receive some press release speaking about the ‘dental industry’; we are encouraged to look on our practices as small businesses.

We are regulated by people who rarely have any dental qualification or experience, with certain honourable exceptions.

We are not a united profession, but divided along almost tribal lines, NHS v private, associates v principals, salaried v general practice and specialists v generalists.

Sir John Tomes established us as an honourable profession, with the right to call ourselves dentists.

For that we respect him, but where is a 21st century Sir John, who will lead us back to being the profession we remember?

Incidentally the houses where I was born and brought up have been razed to the ground and new ‘luxury dwellings’ erected – a tale of our times.

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