No longer overlooked: Lilian Lindsay, Britain’s first female dentist
When North London Collegiate School Headmistress Lilian told Lindsay that she wanted to be a teacher and that she would stop her from finding another type of job, Lindsay shot back, “You can’t stop me from being a dentist.”
“I knew nothing about dentistry,” Lindsay wrote in her unpublished autobiography, “but after boldly declaring that I was going to be a dentist, there was nothing else to do.”
In the 1890s there were no certified female dentists in Britain; The profession was considered unladylike, and women were considered physically unfit for the work.
On her first attempt in 1892, she was rejected when she applied to study at the National Dental Hospital in England. Dean Henry Weiss was so concerned that she would distract the male students that he would only interview her on the sidewalk in front of the school.
Later that year she went to Scotland where the rules were a bit more relaxed. She was accepted as the first student at Edinburgh Dental Hospital and School, although not everyone was happy about it.
“Are you aware you’re taking the bread out of a poor guy’s mouth?” Henry Littlejohn, then considered a public health expert, told her.
In Edinburgh, Lindsay struggled to pay for food and accommodation. But she was young, determined and inspired by her work.
“There was only enough money, and barely enough, to get me through my courses and exams,” she wrote in her autobiography. “I must not fail.”
She had found her calling. By the time she graduated in 1894, she had won the Wilson Medal for Dental Surgery and Pathology and a Medal for Academic Achievement in Medicine and Therapy.
The next year she was accredited at a meeting of the British Dental Association and became the first certified dentist in Britain. At the end of the 19th century in the United States women also entered the profession.
She became a notable figure in British dentistry: the first female President of the British Dental Society in 1946; the first female President of the Society for the Study of Orthodontics; and the founder and longtime curator of the British Dental Association Library, which she directed for three decades.
She was also editor of the British Dental Journal and the author of numerous articles and two books: A Brief History of Dentistry, considered one of the first serious histories of the profession, and a translation of a classic French text entitled The Dentist.
An article in the British Dental Journal written after her death described her as “a powerful but reserved, caring, focused, humble, humorous and engaging personality”.
A shorthand typist who worked in the library when Lindsay was in her 60s, Florence Messner, said she always dressed in black, her wavy gray hair tied back in a small bun, and she wore gold wire-rimmed glasses that “covered her eyes.” brought to bear – very consistent, clear and kind.”
Lindsay opened the door to dentistry and although change has been slow, more than half of dentists in the UK are now women, according to the General Dental Council, which regulates the profession there.
Lilian Murray was born in Holloway, London, on July 24, 1871, the third of eleven children of James Morrison Murray, a church organist and voice teacher, and Margaret Amelia (Bennett) Murray.
The family struggled after James Murray died in 1885 and Lindsay received a scholarship to North London Collegiate School. There, the principal, Frances Buss, insisted that she become a teacher. When Lindsay refused, the headmistress withdrew her scholarship and forced her to leave school and start her own business in 1889.
In the United States, Emeline Roberts Jones was the first woman to establish a regular dental practice, joining her husband’s practice in 1859. She persuaded him to let her join by secretly working on extracted teeth and presenting him with a two-litre jar of teeth she had filled. She later established her own office in New Haven, Connecticut.
Lucy Hobbs Taylor was the first American woman to graduate with a dentistry degree in 1866. “People were amazed,” wrote one critic, “when they learned that a young girl had forgotten her femininity enough to want to study dentistry.” She taught the art to her husband, a Civil War veteran and railroad car painter, and they opened a practice together in Lawrence, Kan.
The first professional dentist in America, Lindsay wrote in an essay, was Robert Woofendale, who traveled from Britain to the colonies in 1766, where he made what she described as “the first complete set of ‘false teeth’ ever seen in America.”
Others, including patriot Paul Revere, a silversmith, did dental work on the side.
On her first day in Edinburgh, she met her future husband, Robert Lindsay, a faculty member. They married in 1905 when she was 34 and he was 40. He died in 1930.
Among the more notable professors she met in Edinburgh were William Bowman MacLeod, known for his studies of the effects of playing the bagpipes on teeth; and Joseph Bell, whose gift for unexpected deductions led one of his students, Arthur Conan Doyle, to use him as a model for his fictional detective Sherlock Holmes.
Lilian Lindsay then moved to London where she spent the next decade practicing to pay off her student loan and then went into practice with her husband in Edinburgh.
In 1920 Robert Lindsay was appointed Dental Secretary of the British Dental Association. The couple moved to London where Lilian founded the British Dental Association Library. Over the next 30 years, she expanded it into one of the most comprehensive dental libraries in Europe.
As she explored the context of her own achievements, she became one of the first people in Britain to take a serious interest in the history of dentistry.
She studied French, German, Latin and some Old English and Spanish to improve her reading skills. Her history of dentistry and her published works are rich in details about the “strange and horrific” procedures of centuries past:
The dental charlatans of the 14th century who pulled out teeth “at the point of a sword” while marching bands played to gather a crowd; tooth transplants using the teeth of sheep or dogs or even baboons; an army officer who ordered a helper to stand by during a transplant if one of his teeth was needed; and the quirky king who asked his dentist to hand him a glass of brandy, not to drink but “to make sure his hand was steady.”
Over the years, Lindsay’s standing rose as she accumulated multiple honorary degrees and memberships, becoming the first woman to hold a number of influential positions in dentistry.
In 1946 she was made Commander of the British Empire, an honor one rank below that of a knighthood.
Lilian Lindsay died on January 31, 1960. She was 89 years old.
By the time she sat down to write her autobiography, she had gained a new perspective on her confrontation half a century earlier with Frances Buss, the autocratic school principal.
“Perhaps,” she wrote, she misjudged Buss “due to resentment that later changed.”
“There are natures that need resistance and obstacles to achieve a goal,” she wrote. Her feelings were softened over time “to a sense of gratitude and an acknowledgment that Miss Buss is, after all, the ‘divinity shaping our goals.'”