Legacy and challenges of New Zealand’s school dental nurses finally recognised


Tooth and Veil: The life and times of the New Zealand dental nurse

School dental nurses have had a bad rap over the years, with children living in fear of their annual visit to the school’s ‘Murder House’. Anecdotes about unnecessary fillings, pain and discomfort abound. But what about the access to affordable dental care that the service offered?

In a ground-breaking new book published by Massey University Press in April, author Noel O’Hare sets the record straight and pays long-overdue tribute to the nation’s dental nurses. O’Hare also exposes how, in a rigged study, school dental nurses were used as crusaders for promoting water fluoridisation. Alarmingly, they were also unwittingly exposed to toxic mercury poisoning.

‘Dental nurses were frequently accused of practising on children and doing unnecessary fillings. A theme of this book has been the tight control exercised by management over school dental nurses. No one graduated who had not met the exacting standards. During training every aspect of their work was examined with military rigour. In the field they had no need to practise; they were proficient and the work they did was strictly controlled,’ says O’Hare.

The School Dental Service was established nearly 100 years ago — a social experiment unique to New Zealand, lauded around the world and later modelled in 15 countries. O’Hare highlights the courage, compassion and resourcefulness of our dental nurses, especially in the early years when they were sent alone to remote locations.

Tooth and Veil is the untold story of the young women at the front line of that experiment. Lowly paid ‘slaves’ to the dental profession, who endured military-style training, poor resourcing, petty discipline, and increasingly archaic rules about uniform and behaviour.

O’Hare interviewed countless dental nurses, including Dame Annette King, to author an engaging social history about
these plucky young women. Tooth and Veil reveals their uplifting and, at times, shocking stories, and is a timely corrective
for a much-maligned profession.

Noel O’Hare is a freelance journalist, columnist, blogger and author. Born in Northern Ireland, O’Hare has lived and worked in New Zealand since the early 1970s. He is a former staff writer for the New Zealand Listener magazine, where he wrote many award-winning features on subjects as diverse as reading, tantric sex, diet, mental illness and alternative therapies. O’Hare was awarded a 2003–2004 Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism to write articles on mental health, in particular, about the effects of migration on mental health. He is the author of Think before you Swallow: The art of staying healthy in a health obsessed world (2007) and How to Save the World by Recycling Your Sex Toys (2009). Until recently, he worked as a researcher and writer for the Public Service Association (PSA.)


Related Posts