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A story of courage and achievement in early dentistry: Edward Tull-Warnock

Blog Author Helen Nield

Blog Date 22/10/2018

Edward-Tull-Warnock.png​We've very few records of any early professionally registered dentists who were black – probably because of prejudices of the time it's likely that there weren't many, but also the difficulties in unearthing information from the limited records that have survived.

But we do know about the story of Edward Tull-Warnock (pictured right), who we think may have been one of Britain's first black, qualified, professional dentists in 1912.


And during Black History Month, we'd like to celebrate his extraordinary achievement of becoming a dentist in the early 1900s, and tell his story.



Edward Tull's early life: loss and adoption

Tull-family.pngEdward 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: 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 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 letter in support of the first Dentists Act, then going through Parliament, supporting the move to professionalising the service and 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), 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. 

Walter joined the 'Footballer's Battalion' of the Middlesex Regiment when war broke out in 1914.


He showed great bravery and aptitude and 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, aims to use Tull's story to boost community cohesion and inclusivity. 


Helen Nield, BDA Head of Library & Knowledge Services



With many thanks to dentist Mike Gow (a descendent of the Aitken's, related to the Tull-Warnock's) 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 biograher, Phil Vasili for his information on Walter and Edward Tull.

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. 


We are 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.