Noel O'Hare is a journalist and author of newly-released social history Tooth and Veil: the life and times of the New Zealand dental nurse, described as ''the story of the young women charged with waging war on our nation’s poor teeth.''
Published by Massey University, this lively history details the nurses’ experiences on the front line of dental health, and explores what that reveals about our society’s attitudes to women, work and children’s health.
Noel joined us for ten quick questions.
What drew you to write about this subject?
I was researching material for the Public Service Association’s centenary celebrations and I became intrigued by the story of the school dental nurses’ march on Parliament in 1974. One observer had described it as ‘one the largest demonstrations of women since the days of the suffragettes’. I was surprised to find that no one had written a book about school dental nurses. It was a great untold story so I decided to write it myself.
There are so many fascinating elements in the book. Was there a particular story or discovery that surprised you?
I guess what struck me most was the courage and resourcefulness of the pioneer dental nurses – 19- and 20-year-olds sent into remote areas with little or no support. There’s the story of one nurse, Beryl Dickson, having to climb down a rope ladder on the side of a ship at midnight to board a rocking and pitching launch along with her equipment.
Do you have your own memories of the ‘murder house’?
I emigrated to New Zealand when I was 23 so I missed out on that experience. Incidentally, dental nurses hated the epithet ‘murder house’. They felt it was unfair and unhelpful when they often did their best to put children at ease. As I can attest, dentistry, regardless of where you lived in the world, was never a pleasant experience. So-called painless dentistry is a very recent phenomenon.
You mention the negative comments you received from people remembering their time in the school dental chair. Was this attitude something that affected the dental nurses you spoke to?
Dental nurses were acutely conscious that the treatment was often painful or unpleasant because their equipment was outdated and they were only permitted to use anaesthetic for extractions, not fillings. But they had a job to do. Children would have suffered more from toothache and abscesses if left untreated.
Dental nurses often worked in very isolated places under difficult conditions, yet it seemed that many enjoyed their job. What do you think was the appeal?
I think they probably enjoyed being independent and self-reliant in an era when few women had the opportunity to demonstrate those qualities. They also had social status in the communities where they worked and they believed the work they did was important and worthwhile.
In many ways the treatment of school dental nurses was appalling. But did it just reflect society’s attitudes to women and work in general?
It is certainly true that the poor treatment of dental nurses reflected the attitudes to women in general for many decades. But that was exacerbated by the fact school dental nurses were also subjected to strict military-style discipline. They were required, for example, to stand to attention, hands behind their back, when addressed by a supervising dentist. The school dental service demanded unquestioning obedience at all times. They were given little notice and no say in where they were posted.
There’s a good deal of humour in the book. Dental nurses seemed to have good time socially despite the rules and regulations and the awful matrons.
Yes, they lived in hostels under strict curfew, but they made good use of the fire escapes, lived it up at the weekend and played tricks on the matron. The friendships they made while training lasted a lifetime and many still attend reunions and keep in touch.
The march on Parliament in 1974 opens the book. Was it a pivotal change for the service and how dental nurses were treated, or an aberration?
The march was like lancing a boil of discontent that had built up over decades. It wasn’t just that they hadn’t received a wage rise of their own for 21 years, it was about all the petty rules and mindless bureaucracy surrounding their work. It was about the lack of respect they’d been shown as grown women and professionals. As one dental nurse put it, you learned early on all that you were a slave of the dental profession. The march was a statement that they’re weren’t going to put up with it anymore. It changed everything.
Dental nurses as such no longer exist, and the service was restructured in the 1990s. For all its faults, do you believe that the original school dental service made a real difference for New Zealand children?
School dental clinics were in school grounds, so few children escaped regular inspection and treatment. Now it is hit and miss and there are delays in treatment because of a shortage of dental therapists. In the 1990s many young therapists were made redundant because they were cheaper to pay out. A third of currently practising dental therapists are now aged between 55 and 75. The School Dental Service was a resource that could have been modernised and expanded to also treat those on low incomes. New Zealand led the world when it set up the School Dental Service in 1921. Now thousands of children have to go to hospital each year and have their teeth extracted under general anaesthetic.
Are you working on anything at the moment?
I put a novel on the back burner to finish this book. Now it’s time to turn up the heat and get cooking again.
Find a copy of Tooth and Veil here. or at your local bookshop.