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BAME in dental history

We've very few records of any early professionally registered dentists who were from a BAME background – probably because of prejudices of the time it's likely that there weren't many. It is also difficult to unearth information from the limited records that have survived. Of the ones we know about they had to struggle to be accepted in their chosen profession.

Stories of courage and achievement in early dentistry


Joseph St Clair


He married a girl from Bristol, Masie Stallard, and made a relatively good living in interwar Bristol.


As was common during that time, he pulled teeth at country fairs and was enterprising in selling his own brand of tooth powder, along with other herbal remedies based on Caribbean ingredients sent to him by his parents.


He was eventually banned from practising dentistry without a license, but he continued to work as a herbalist and with his wife, raised a family in the city.


Before the 19th century the practice of dentistry was still a long way from achieving professional status, but this was to change.


The first licences in dental surgery were awarded by the Royal College of Surgeons of England in 1860, but it was not until 1921 that the wording of the Dentists Act changed to make it impossible to practise dentistry without an entry in the dentists register.


Joseph’s son, Reuben St Claire, became a prisoner of war at Stalag XXB during the Second World War.

An audiocassette recording of Reuben and Cleophus St Claire which includes recorded memories and 'spiritual' songs composed by Joseph St Clair is held by the Bristol Archives.


Read more about him based on an interview with his granddaughter, Dr Lindsay St Claire, herself a Chartered Health Psychologist.


Edward Tull-Warnock

One story we do know is of Edward Tull-Warnock, who we think may have been one of Britain's first black, qualified, professional dentists in 1912.


Edward Tull's early life: loss and adoption

Edward Tull was born in 1886, one of five children to Daniel Tull, a carpenter from Barbados and Alice, his English wife, in Folkestone in Kent. Alice died in 1895, and Daniel also passed away in 1897.


Edward and his brother Walter were placed in a children's home. Edward was then adopted in 1900, by Jeanie and James Warnock and moved to live in Glasgow.


Jeanie's brother, James Aitken was a dentist by trade, with a surgery in Glasgow's Gallowgate. James Warnock was a block-printer, a very skilled occupation, requiring manual dexterity, and he decided to switch careers and apprentice to his brother-in-law, as a dentist.




Photo left courtesy of the Finlayson Family Archive: Walter Daniel J Tull seated front middle, with (left to right) Lelillia (Cecilia, aka Cissy) Sarah A Tull, William Stephen P Tull, Edward James A Tull, Daniel Tull (father) and Elsie Alice E Tull. The photograph was taken following the death of their mother


Becoming a dentist: against the odds


The Warnocks' sent Edward (pictured right - photo courtesy of the Finlayson Family Archive) to Allan Glen Boys' School, one of the best academies in Glasgow – he played football (like his brother), and showed great academic aptitude, entering the Incorporated Glasgow Dental Hospital in 1906. He was an outstanding student, and won prizes for his operative work and general duties at the hospital.


He then went on to learn anaesthesia at the Royal Infirmary and graduated in 1910 with a Licentiate in Dental Surgery (LDS).


The greatness of his achievement cannot be under-estimated, at that time he would have probably been  the only black student in the hospital, and we imagine he may have faced a lot of prejudice and adversity.


Applying for his first job in Birmingham after qualifying, and in spite of '..taking the precaution of sending his photograph' to his new employer, when he arrived at the surgery, his employer is reported to have exclaimed: 'My God, you're coloured! You'll destroy my practice in 24 hours!'


Edward then decided to practice with his father in Glasgow and later Aberdeen, where he met his wife. Seven members of his extended family went on to become dentists, including his adopted cousin, Benjamina Aitken, one of Scotland's earliest female Licentiates in Dental Surgery (gaining her qualification in May 1929).


We have a copy of Edward's first entry onto the dentists' register in 1913.


In 1921 he wrote a letter in support of the first Dentists Act, then going through Parliament, applauding the move to professionalising the service and acknowledging the need for formal qualifications.


The beginnings of 'professional' dentistry

As a recognised 'profession' dentistry didn't get status until the late 1800s – in 1858, the Dental Hospital of London opened, the first clinical training establishment for dentists in Britain and the Medical Registration Act permitted the College of Surgeons to grant licences in dental surgery, with the first ones being awarded in 1860.


Prior to this, dentistry could be carried out by anyone who claimed to have the skills, leading to some interesting techniques and barbaric practices!


Scotland was slightly ahead of the curve when it came to taking qualifications seriously, in 1856, Dr John Smith, a surgeon-dentist, and later President of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, was the first person to conduct a course on dentistry with instructions for medical students – and so it was fortuitous that the young Edward Tull ended up in Scotland and got his status.


His brother: Walter Tull, footballer and war hero

His brother Walter Tull (pictured right, with Edward - photo courtesy of the Finlayson Family Archive), also has an incredible story of courage and bravery.


He became the second black English professional football player, playing for Tottenham Hotspur in 1909 and later Northampton Town.


When war broke out in 1914 he joined the 'Footballers' Battalion' of the Middlesex Regiment.


Showing great bravery and aptitude he was promoted to Sergeant, fighting in the Battle of the Somme in 1916.


Despite military regulations forbidding 'people of colour' being commissioned as officers, he was promoted to Lieutenant in 1917.


He was tragically killed in action on the Western Front in March 1918.


A campaign to posthumously award Walter Tull the military cross is ongoing, and the #Tull100 campaign, a government and Lottery-funded initiative that took place during the centenary of his death used Tull's story to boost community cohesion and inclusivity.


Visit the Walter Tull Archive for further information.



With many thanks to dentist Mike Gow (a descendent of the Aitkens, related to the Tull-Warnocks) for information from their family archive and for the images in this blog


With thanks to the Glasgow First World War Archives, for their information on Walter and Edward Tull


Thanks also to biographer, Phil Vasili for his information on Walter and Edward Tull. He is continuing to research Edward's story.




Diversity and dentistry

We know that there are stark inequalities between ethnic minorities entering the professions. While a number of ethnic minority groups are well represented in the dental student population, analysis suggests that there is consistent under-representation of African-Caribbean students.


The BDA is undertaking research into how the professions can work together to widen access to dentistry. We believe it it not only a matter of social mobility and equal access, but it is also important that dentistry, and healthcare more generally, has a workforce that reflects fully the diversity of the communities it serves and cares for.

Find out more about our work on diversity and dentistry in our blogs.

​Help to build a BAME UK dental history archive 

If you have/had a family member or know of dentists or members of the dental team who have played a part in BAME UK dental history please tell us their story and help us build a bigger picture.