Dentistry: Discovery, Education and Innovation: Uncovering the history of dentistry in Victoria

This year we celebrate the 135th Anniversary of the establishment of the Odontological Society of Victoria in 1884, which brought about the development of the first dental school in the State. The organisation consisted of a group of trained dentists and was modelled on the Odontological Society of Great Britain, established in 1856.

To mark the anniversary, the Henry Forman Atkinson Dental Museum will showcase a major exhibition and catalogue, Dentistry: Discovery, Education and Innovation. The development of dentistry practice, education and public health will be the focus of the exhibition. Objects from the Henry Forman Atkinson Dental Museum, Australian Dental Association, Victoria and other major dental collections including from the University of Utrecht in The Netherlands will be displayed.

The exhibition will highlight those who were prominent in progressing the professional practice of dentistry in Australia, including John Iliffe, who was integral to establishing the Odontological Society and the Dental Hospital, and Dr Fanny Gray (BDSc 1907), the first female graduate of the Faculty of Dental Science at the University of Melbourne in 1907.

The exhibition will include teaching objects from the Australian College of Dentistry, established in 1897 and affiliated with the University of Melbourne in a process that formalised dental education and further legitimised dental practice and research.

Developments in dentistry that impacted further scientific and medical practises will be explored, with a particular focus on anaesthesia, infection control, plastic surgery and forensics, such as the work of Dentists Horace Wells and William Morton, who discovered the breakthrough anaesthetics, nitrous oxide and ether, respectively, in the 19th century.

The Henry Forman Atkinson Dental Museum continues its commitment to partnering with Indigenous communities.

Two recently commissioned artworks on bark by Yolngu artist, Mulkun Wirrpanda, will be on view. These works depict the Dhuwa clan’s tradition of throwing the newly lost baby teeth of children onto the roots of the Pandanus tree. The roots of this plant are equated with the reversed teeth of a shark. Throwing the baby teeth into the tree is understood to encourage new teeth to quickly grow strong and sharp. These works will be permanently housed in the foyer of the Melbourne Dental School.

In August 2018, over a thousand teeth were discovered in the Metro Tunnel excavation site next door to the historic Young and Jackson pub. Orthodontist Mark Evans was involved in determining that these teeth, all displaying severe decay, were extracted using a method equivalent to dental avulsion. The teeth were then, most likely, disposed of down the drain at the former dental rooms on the site.

The discovery provides insight into the early dental profession in Australia. John James Forster, was identified as the extractor. He practised at number 11 Swanston Street from 1889 to his death in 1924 and built his renown partly through advertising that he could remove teeth without pain. This was a strong claim for the day when anaesthesia was still reliant on volatile anaesthetics. Forster was registered on May 3, 1888, a year before the Victorian Dentists Law Amendment Act passed in 1898.

J.J. Forster’s practice and the exhumed teeth belong to a transformative era when dentistry made rapid advances in conservative and preventative treatments.

This exciting discovery will be part of the exhibition. Prominent dentists and historians will be invited to contribute to the accompanying publication which will be launched in 2020.

Dentistry: Discovery, Education and Innovation will open in late 2019  at the Medical History Museum, Level 2, Brownless Biomedical Library. For enquiries, please contact: mhm-info@unimelb.edu.au


Dr Fannie Gray examining a soldier’s teeth, circa 1915, photograph and cardboard, 21.1 x 16.8 cm. Henry Forman Atkinson Dental Museum Collection.