New Zealand was one of the first countries in the world to recognise the importance of good oral health

Since the early days of dentistry in New Zealand dental therapists (or dental nurses as they were then known) played a key role in the oral health profession. For nearly a century they have been treating young people and educating them and their families about the importance of good oral health.

A Century of Oral Health Care

Early last century New Zealanders’ oral health was in pretty bad shape
In 1913 Dr Norman Cox, president of the New Zealand Dental Association (NZDA) proposed that to address the problem oral hygienists be trained at the dental school to treat children 6–14 years old. It was a controversial suggestion and one that did not initially gain traction.

World War I

During the First World War the poor state of the nation’s teeth again came into focus when many recruits needed extensive treatment to make them dentally fit to serve.
After the war the leader of the New Zealand Dental Corps, Colonel Thomas Hunter, pushed for the focus of dentistry to move from extraction to the restoration of teeth and the prevention of decay. As director of the new division of dental hygiene in the Department of Health, he successfully advocated the establishment of the School Dental Service (SDS) in 1921 to treat primary schoolchildren¹.

School Dental Service

There was much controversy within the NZDA about the establishment of the SDS, but in the end delegates voted to support it. Training for the School Dental Nurse Program was established and the first set of dental nurses graduated from the new Wellington School in 1923. Further training schools were established in Auckland in 1952 and Christchurch in 1956.
The graduating school dental nurses worked in dental clinics and mobile units attached to schools across the country. They provided diagnostic, preventive and treatment services for children and referred treatment beyond their skills to local dentists.

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A collection of interviews with past school dental nurses is held by the New Zealand Oral History Archive.

The First Association

The first dental therapy association was formed in New Zealand in 1935 and was known as the New Zealand State Dental Nurses’ Institute.
In 1995 members voted to create a new structure and to rename their organisation the New Zealand Dental Therapists’ Association (NZDTA). These changes were made in response to a changing industrial climate, an increasingly decentralised health service and to recognise that the NZDTA was the only national organisation representing dental therapists on professional issues.
The organisation has continued to evolve in response to the ever changing professional environment in which it operates. To best reflect its position and role in the oral health profession the NZDTA was renamed the New Zealand Dental and Oral Health Therapists’ Association in 2012.

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A Friendly Career

In the 1950’s a career as a dental nurse was actively promoted to young female school leavers – although back half a century ago it was a career that was only expected to last until she settled down to married life!

“A Friendly Career”, is a promotional film made in 1953 by the National Film Unit for the Department of Health.

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The Murder House

Dental nurses did not only contribute to the improving oral health of young Kiwis, along the way they became part of the cultural fabric of New Zealand.

The 1988 short film “The Murder House” takes a rather sinister look at the profession.

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Oral Histories

The collection and archiving of oral history interviews conducted with past school dental nurses is continuing. Oral history interviews provide an archived record of the service’s past through individual memories.

Completed interview tapes and abstracts are deposited with the Alexander Turnbull Library’s Oral History Centre.

The project aims to record individual memories and personal recollections of school dental nurse training, the nature of the training course, graduating and first postings and experiences on the job.

Please contact us if you are, or know anyone who is, interested in being interviewed for the project.

Useful links

National Library of New Zealand
Te Ara – The Encyclopaedia of New Zealand
History of the Canadian Dental Therapists’ Association

¹ Andrew Schmidt. ‘Dental care – Dental nurses to dental therapists’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 29-Mar-11