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Who was practising dentistry prior to 1921?

There were several different classes of dentist prior to the introduction of the Dentist Act 1921.

​Qualified Dentists

  • Held a formal qualification such as a Licentiate in Dental Surgery (LDS) or BDS
  • Represented by the BDA 
  • Worked in dental hospitals and schools, school dental service and private practice
  • Qualified dentists charged the highest fees for their services

Urban E Cave

An inheritance from an uncle enabled Urban Cave to pass his exams and pay his fees for dental school. Qualification for dental registration was a long and costly process. His training provided a comprehensive understanding of all dental matters and the skills to conserve the teeth rather than extract them. He qualified from Guy’s Hospital Dental School in 1894. He was appointed as Assistant Dental House Surgeon and then promoted to Dental House Surgeon. He was a member of the BDA and set up in practice in Nottingham where he lived and worked for over 30 years serving the local community.

​​The non formally qualified dentist

  • Learnt their skills through apprenticeships
  • Represented by the Incorporated Dental Society (IDS)
  • Worked in private practice
  • Vastly outnumbered the qualified dentists
  • Generally charged less for their services than qualified dentists

​Daniel Garforth

Daniel Garforth (1877-1960) was a registered dentist but held no formal qualification. Here he is in his surgery in Failsworth or Ashton-under-Lyne in around 1910. Both his son Harold and daughter Helena in the photo went on to qualify as dentists at Manchester Dental School. He was an active member of the Incorporated Dental Society (IDS) being a founder member and President of the Manchester Branch. Admission to the IDS was stringent with members needing to prove years of experience, refrain from advertising and a commitment to ongoing learning. He was keen to demonstrate that his skills along with other non qualified dentists should be recognised in any new legislation.


The Chemist Dentist

  • ​Learnt dental skills through an apprenticeship
  • Represented by the Chemist Dentist Society
  • Operated from a chemist shop in a highly populated area
  • Dentistry a crucial part of chemist shop business.
  • Well established in selling oral hygiene products
  • Often cheaper than the qualified and non formally qualified practitioner

George Godson

George Frederick Godson entered the chemist and druggist register in 1900. He set up his business in Lincoln Street Old Basford, Nottingham where he operated a chemist shop and dental rooms.

The Corporate Dentist

  • Learnt his skills through a dental apprenticeship
  • Premises in central urban location
  • Advertised profusely

​​The Macdonalds Dental Company

An example of a dental body corporate was The Macdonalds Dental Company Ltd established in 1894, with a registered head office in Oxford Street, London. By the 1920s it had 26 practices across England mainly in large towns and cities. Generally, corporates did not employ dentists with formal qualifications. There were no legal restrictions to forming an incorporated company practising dentistry.

​The unscrupulous operators

It is difficult to tell how many unscrupulous operators were at work during this period but their numbers outnumbered the qualified. The number of prosecutions against them was also high.


Maidstone County Court £14 10s damages against G C Smith for negligence. Inflammation of the mouth – tooth broken off. Statement that Mr Smith had been twice fined for calling himself a dentist, and then turned himself into a limited company, and then when an injunction against the company was obtained by the BDA, he started calling himself a dentist again. The judge desired to draw attention to the disgraceful state of affairs disclosed by the evidence. 25th September 1909.


Glasgow Sheriff’s court A Murray recovered £50 damages and expenses against R B Mackie. Jaw bone broken, septic poisoning and haemorrhage. Defendant had the words Dental Surgery on the stairs outside his rooms and Dental rooms on the door. Pursuer did not know defender was unqualified. Defender appealed and failed. 1915.

Highlighted for malpractice in a government report of 1919 were the 57 Hygienic institutes in operation across the UK. They employed canvassers to go door to door to find patients, most often in poor urban areas. Free dental care was offered to children with the hope of encouraging the parents to seek treatment. They specialised in extracting teeth and fitting dentures and using expensive payment plans.