Go to content

International Women’s Day: Untold stories of female dentists

​On the historical contributions women have made to dentistry and how you can share their untold stories.

Rachel Bairsto
Rachel Bairsto Head of Museum Services

For this International Women’s Day, we’re reflecting on the amazing contributions many women have made to dentistry by looking back through our archives. The first woman to qualify in the UK as a dentist – in 1895 - was the wonderful Lillian Lindsay. We’ve covered Lilian’s impressive achievements before, and her contribution to dentistry and to the BDA. But she wasn’t the only pioneering woman in dentistry.

I want to find out more about some of the other women who contributed to our profession, broke new ground in their choice of career, and worked hard to combat stereotypes.

Providing essential care

The first official qualification for dentists was not made until 1860, with the Royal College of Surgeons granting licenses in dental surgery. The 1878 Dentists Act paved the way for the first Dental Register the following year, but you could still practice as a dentist at that time without formal training and many women did.

The first official qualification for dentists was not made until 1860.

However, Eva Handley graduated in 1901 and went on to work at the Women’s Military Hospital in Endell Street from 1915-1919. She was a BDA member and clearly quite a formidable character; one source said she was known as “[the] dental surgeon whose skill in extraction was considered marvellous, never failed to thrill the men, and she was eagerly pointed out to friends and visitors”!

Two women dentists training at the National Dental Hospital in 1916

Handley also held honorary dental surgeon appointments at hospitals and clinics for vulnerable women and children. And she was one of the first women we know of to be both medically and dentally qualified, no mean feat for a woman in that era.

Kate Latarche meanwhile qualified at Manchester in 1912. During the First World War she joined the Girton and Newnham Unit of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals and treated French and Serbian troops in Salonica on the Macedonian front. She treated staff and patients in the Dental Department, which was located in a large wooden hut and shared an x-ray department and septic and aseptic operating theatres with the hospital.

Recruiting other women into dentistry

Another story we know is that of Helen Mayo, who qualified in 1919.

By 1921 she had contributed works to the British Dental Journal and was giving talks encouraging more women to enter the profession.

She told audiences: “The dentist should bear in mind that all patients arrive suffering with the pip [feeling unwell, irritated or depressed] and it is her duty to cheer them up.” But some of her thoughts on dentistry were a little unusual. For instance, she once said, “large feet are also essential as a dentist has to spend most of her time standing up."

Putting oral health on the agenda

At that time, poor oral health was a blight for many and a great number of women did essential work in the developing school dental service.

Helen Mayo poses for the camera

Many women did essential work in the developing school dental service.

In 1925, Mrs Mabel Inder, a school dentist giving evidence to the Barnstaple Education Committee, said: “It is very discouraging to find infants entering school with very bad teeth. It is the exception to find a good set of temporary teeth in a child’s mouth at the age of five when first examined by a school dentist.”

The school dental service was instrumental in getting the importance of good oral health recognised and it’s mainly women we must thank for putting in the leg work. 

For instance, Lilian Lindsay, as President of the BDA in 1946, paid tribute to Margherita Loretz (LDS RCS Eng 1920): "As dental officer for Brentford and Chiswick Borough Council she has fought for 22 years for better conditions, sacrificing her own health. Now Brentford school dental clinic can be proudly set side by side with the best dental clinic in the world.”

Was your ancestor a dentist?

These illuminating snippets help us to build a picture of the enormous contribution women have made to dentistry across the twentieth century. As dentistry today is increasingly becoming a female dominated profession, we continue to track down the inspiring stories of those who paved the way for other women to forge successful careers in our profession.

Help us to build a picture of the contribution women have made to dentistry.

There were only 263 female dentists on the Dental Register in 1923, which was approximately two per cent of all dentists registered at that time. Of these, only a third - 87 women - held a dental qualification. Most had learnt their skills through an apprenticeship. They included Emily Alderon (Leeds), Ada Baker, (Nottingham), Mary Beattie (Coventry), Eva Brewer (Rochester), Margery Brown (Folkestone) and Netta Burack (Dublin). If you recognise any of these names and know their stories, or the stories of another female dentist, please do get in touch: [email protected].

We’re always looking to learn more about women in dentistry and document their contributions to the profession. If you are interested in learning more about an ancestor who you think may have been a dentist, we can help. The Dental Registers we hold began in 1879 recording the name, address and qualification of every dentist in the UK, so may also be able to help you trace your ancestors in our archives.

The staff of Endell Street Military Hospital line up for a photo taken in black and white. There are around 50 people in the photograph