Story: Cox, Norman Kershaw

Page 1 - Biography

Cox, Norman Kershaw

1869–1949

Dentist, dental health reformer

This biography was written by Tom Brooking and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 3, 1996

Norman Kershaw Cox, advocate of a more scientific and professional approach to dentistry and champion of a socialised dental service, was born at Preston, Lancashire, England, on 1 December 1869, the son of Edwin Cox, a dental surgeon, and his wife, Margaret Bell. Norman was educated at King Edward VI Grammar School in Birmingham. In 1880 he emigrated with his family to Auckland, New Zealand, where his father practised dentistry. Norman, two brothers and a sister would all pursue the same career, his sister Jessie becoming the first woman to qualify as a dentist in New Zealand.

Norman Cox studied at the University of Michigan, USA, receiving a doctorate of dental surgery and MD around 1891. From there he travelled to London to develop his skills at Guy's Hospital. On his return to New Zealand he assisted his brother Goodwin in practice at Timaru, where he would work for over 40 years. He took over the practice about 1895 and became a registered dentist in July 1898. On 9 October 1899 Cox married Florence Mabel Moss in Greymouth.

In addition to his private work Cox served as honorary dental surgeon for the Timaru Hospital from 1896 to 1909. The experience persuaded him that public hospitals could help deliver dental services to a much wider section of the community than could private practitioners. When the New Zealand Dental Association (NZDA) was set up in 1905, Cox argued – as had his father earlier – that New Zealand dentists should remain independent of their medical brethren and should not join forces with the British Medical Association, as was the case in England. Cox won this argument and the NZDA developed as an independent organisation. It was also partly at his insistence that the new Dental School at the University of Otago tried to incorporate the best of American, British and Australian dentistry rather than slavishly following one model.

Norman Cox served as president of the NZDA in 1912–13 and used the office to advocate setting up a state-funded dental service. He argued that 40 dentists employed by the state could improve the dental health of New Zealand children by providing treatment in the towns and through travelling clinics. Oral hygienists could also be trained at the Dental School to help dentists in this work. Such a scheme seemed to Cox to be a logical extension of the general trend to have the state become more involved in the welfare of its citizens. Other dentists were not so convinced, and the First World War delayed developments. Cox did, however, continue to advocate greater state involvement and helped the politician T. K. Sidey and the NZDA executive win bursaries for Dental School trainees in 1919.

As a champion of improved dental health for children, Cox was an enthusiastic supporter of Thomas Hunter's dental nurse scheme. Cox maintained, though, that the service should be expanded to include adolescents. The adolescent scheme that finally emerged after the Second World War owed much to his advocacy. It was, in fact, a subsidised means of enabling young dentists to get started in practice and did not go far enough for Cox, who always argued that the state should provide quality dental treatment at a cost that could be afforded by all. He also warned that Maori dental health would decline unless there was an improvement in the delivery of dental services they received.

Tall and well built, Cox was actively involved in sport and community life. He played cricket for Canterbury and was much involved in the administration of rugby in South Canterbury. He was also an enthusiastic mountaineer and a leading figure in the Timaru Beautification Society. After the death of Florence Cox in 1934, he married Kathleen Ruth Knox-Elliott in Dunedin on 6 January 1936. The couple later lived in Christchurch. Norman Cox died there on 28 December 1949, survived by Kathleen and a son from his first marriage. Cox's radical advocacy of socialised dental care had placed him somewhat on the outer of the new profession of dentistry. However, throughout his long career he had never wavered from promoting this alternative approach to improving the appalling dental health of New Zealanders.