I know a lot of people have awful memories of the school dentist and the gas mask they used, but I like to think I was one of the kind ones and treated the children as if they were patients in a private practice.
I’d had an LCC (London County Council) grant to cover my dental degree so I couldn’t have a second grant to cover the Medical training I started in the autumn of 1953. I applied for and was awarded a Hilda Martindale Scholarship which covered my medical school fees and a small amount towards my living expenses. I was still living at home so they weren’t great, but medical textbooks were very expensive and I needed money to cover clothes. I approached the LCC Dental Service for a part-time job two evenings a week and was sent to a clinic in the city.
Both the nurse and I were expecting a miserable old bag, like the school dental nurses we’d met ourselves, so both of us were surprised and delighted. Maureen was a rosy-cheeked Somerset lass with a broad sense of humour and we hit it off at once. We spent the time between patients giggling and exchanging notes on the talent available to us and the latest fashions.
As it was an evening clinic, most of our patients were in senior schools. Once they’d got over their amazement at being greeted by two young women in their 20’s and reassured that I would use a local anaesthetic for any painful fillings and never use gas, they were excellent and very grateful patients. Many of those who’d been through the school dental system hated the gas mask and it left them with a permanent fear of dentists. Although at the time, it was still legal for a dentist to administer a general anaesthetic (usually nitrous oxide) on their own, I would never do so. I could carry out fillings and extractions perfectly well under local.
In our first two years at medical school, covering Anatomy, Physiology and Biochemistry, we had long holidays so I took a two-week locum appointment at a school clinic in West Ham that Christmas. The kids were fine and I again had a very pleasant nurse, but I was appalled at the poverty around me. I was brought up in the East End and we were poor but, as my mother had been a dressmaker and scoured the markets stalls for fabric remnants, I was always reasonably well dressed. Some of these children were almost in rags. I tried to persuade a young teenage boy to take off his blazer – no overcoat. I was worried about getting blood or saliva on it. When he finally agreed, I saw that on this on a freezing December day he wore only a singlet underneath.
‘I only have one shirt, you see. Mum washes it every Friday night ready for school on Monday. I never wear it in the holidays.’
I carried on with my evening clinics after Josh and I got married in 1956, until we started out own dental practice where I worked on Wednesday afternoons – when the male medical students played rugger – and Saturday mornings.
And our lovely Maureen left the LCC service and came to work in our practice until she got married in turn and her husband took a job in the country.
I thank all the lovely people who wrote and commented on my memoir ‘Woman in a White Coat.’