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Lilian Lindsay: A woman who didn't take no for an answer

Celebrating International Women's Day and the important role women have played in dentistry.

Rachel Bairsto
Rachel Bairsto BDA Museum, Head of Museum Services

Lillian Lindsay was truly a woman ahead of her time, becoming the first female to qualify as a dentist in the UK in 1895. Taking a look at her pioneering life gives us a great opportunity to reflect on how inspiring women continue to drive our profession forward today.

Breaking the tougher-than-glass ceiling

Lillian had to take her LDS in Edinburgh as no English dental school would accept a female. Then, in 1892 she had applied for entry to the National Dental Hospital in Great Portland Street. The dean, Henry Weiss, refused to admit her because she was a woman. Indeed, he was so concerned that she would distract the male students that he interviewed her on the pavement outside the school.

Undeterred she applied to the Edinburgh Dental Hospital and School, and was accepted, although one of the Edinburgh staff, Sir Henry Littlejohn, said to her: "I am afraid, madam, you are taking the bread out of some poor fellow's mouth." However, Lilian proved her detractors wrong, and during her time in Edinburgh she won the Wilson Medal for dental surgery and pathology and the medal for materia medica and therapeutics in 1894.

On qualifying in 1895, she then spent ten years practising in London to pay off the bank loan that had enabled her to study. It must have been an astonishing thing for a woman to do at that time, and one can only imagine the barriers she faced to following her dream, as well as the daily challenge of being a 'novel' female dentist in a male-dominated profession. Indeed, it would not be until 1912 that Lily Fanny Pain became the first women to qualify in England.

Forging a successful portfolio career

In 1905, Lilian married fellow dentist Robert Lindsay, and this early 'power' couple both went on to have influential roles in the start of the Association and as a great proponent of the profession. At the BDA Library, Lilian served as full time librarian from 1920 until 1946, when she became the BDA's first-ever female president, but also continued to oversee the library's development and growth as Honorary Librarian until her death in 1960.

Lilian became the sub-editor of the British Dental Journal (BDJ) in 1931, a post she held for 20 years. She published 57 papers in the BDJ between 1925-1959 and in 1933 she published a book on the history of dentistry. Impressive by anyone’s measure!

Commemorating her achievements

The Lindsay Society for the History of Dentistry was established in Lilian's memory, in 1962, with the aim of promoting the rich, and often little known, history of the dental profession. Her portrait still hangs in the foyer of the BDA’s London office today. When it reopens, I invite you to pop in and take a look.

Lilian has also recently been included in a new walking tour produced by the National Portrait Gallery. Its Bloomsbury and Fitzrovia tour stops at her blue plaque in Russell Square, where Lilian and Robert Lindsay once lived in a flat above the BDA, and features Frank Eastman's portrait of her. Something which will help give even more people an insight into her achievements.

Then and now

Dentistry has a lot to celebrate in terms of the roles women have played in its development and the huge contributions women continue to make today. You can find out more about the history of women in dentistry from the BDA Library and Museum, which cover everything from 'quacking aphrodites' to 'petticoat practitioners'!

There are now more female dental practitioners than male, and an even greater number of female graduates entering the profession. We know there’s still progress to be made in terms of gender equality. Indeed, that’s part of the mission of the BDA’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Committee. Thankfully, however, dean Henry Weiss’s attitudes are now firmly a thing of the past.