Dentistry: Innovation and education – Dental collections on display

In 1912, the Melbourne Dental Students’ Society presented to John Iliffe a photograph of the final-year class. It was a fitting gesture to one of the founding figures of dental education in Victoria, which originated with a professional body seeking to secure a respected program of training for dentists.

The exhibition Dentistry: Innovation and Education and accompanying publication celebrate the 135th anniversary of the establishment of the Odontological Society of Victoria, which brought about the development of the first dental school in the colony. The society consisted of a group of trained dentists and was modelled on the Odontological Society of Great Britain, established in 1856. Dentistry: Innovation and Education explores the development of dental practice, education and public health in Victoria. The exhibition will be on display until 26 September 2021 at the Medical History Museum, University of Melbourne.

The exhibition includes pieces from the collection housed at the Henry Forman Atkinson Dental Museum. This collection is intrinsically linked with the Odontological Society of Victoria. At an early meeting the society decided to create a library and museum, for which ‘Mr Blix, a member, gave a cedar wood cabinet’. The museum was further nurtured by Iliffe (1847–1914), a member and later president of the society, and it formed the basis of our collection today. Objects and documents from the collections of the Henry Forman Atkinson Dental Museum, the Australian Dental Association Victorian Branch, University of Melbourne Archives, and the Medical History Museum document this history of innovation and education in Victoria.

Many of our early dental practitioners came from Europe, bringing with them various practices and learning traditions. The Utrecht University has loaned items that reveal the early technologies of 18th- and 19th-century dental care as the province of the wealthy. A remarkable inclusion is the personal dental kit of Empress Marie-Louise of France (1791–1847), the second wife of Napoleon Bonaparte.


“It is well known that Napoleon Bonaparte was very concerned about his oral health and teeth. He often used toothpicks; as a result, toothpicks and toothpick boxes became popular among his entourage. Boxes of ivory or tortoiseshell covered with gold were manufactured and purchased by this elite, to demonstrate their good taste. Napoleon even gave his second wife, Marie-Louise, Duchess of Parma (1791–1847), a box containing various dental instruments suitable for surgical interventions and oral hygiene.”

Technology has always influenced dentistry. From the development of toothbrushes, to changes in materials used to make dentures, and increasingly sophisticated equipment such as drills and chairs, a few highlights are included here. The McConnell chair was a gift from the family of the late Henry Forman Atkinson in 2017. Restored by Professor Atkinson, it represents a significant step in chair technology as it could easily be folded and carried.

The last 135 years have seen a transformation of the practice of clinical dentistry: from tooth-pullers to dental surgeons. This has been achieved through the development of educational institutions and the application of technical innovation and scientific research to dental practice. In Victoria, the catalyst was the formation of the Odontological Society in 1884. The legacy of its dedicated members lives on.

View the collection online.