Story: Saunders, John Llewellyn

Page 1 - Biography

Saunders, John Llewellyn

1891–1961

Dentist, public health administrator

This biography was written by Tom Brooking and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 4, 1998

John Llewellyn Saunders was born in Dunedin on 12 January 1891, the son of Scottish-born Jeanie Hutchison and her husband, William Saunders, a Congregationalist minister from Wales. After leaving Otago Boys' High School in 1907, John studied with Henry Pickerill at the recently established University of Otago Dental School, graduating in 1913. He then moved to Christchurch, where he helped to set up the first dental department in the public hospital.

On the outbreak of the First World War, Saunders joined the Otago Infantry Regiment. Described as a 'keen and zealous' officer, he served with distinction at Gallipoli and on the western front. He rose to the rank of major, was twice wounded, and was made a DSO in 1917. After returning to New Zealand he married Gwendolen Beath Beaven in Christchurch on 22 October 1918; they were to have two daughters and a son. In 1919 he joined the well-known Christchurch dental practice of Horace Suckling.

Five years later Saunders became deputy director of the Division of Dental Hygiene in Wellington. It had been formed within the Department of Health in 1921 to oversee the establishment of the New Zealand School Dental Service, and to improve the appalling state of dental health revealed by the wartime inspection of recruits. When Thomas Hunter retired as director in 1930, Saunders took over as the government's senior adviser on dental matters. He became the longest-serving director of the Division of Dental Hygiene, holding the position for 25 years. He was also the first chairman of the Dental Council of New Zealand, formed in 1937 to improve the registration and supervision of dentists.

Like his colleagues Norman Cox and R. E. T. Hewat, John Saunders was an eloquent advocate of a socialised dental service. Supporters of privatised dentistry within the New Zealand Dental Association, however, forced him to compromise. He was able to persuade Peter Fraser, minister of health in the first Labour government, to expand the School Dental Service and increase the number of bursaries available to dental students, but he soon realised that these gains would do little to improve the poor state of dental health amongst adolescents. Saunders suggested that a special salaried service be created to provide free treatment for high school children up to the age of 16. Instead, a scheme was introduced in 1947 in which new Dental School graduates were paid a special subsidy to treat adolescents. The government initially set the age limit at 19, but later lowered it to 16. Despite some early difficulties, this scheme helped many young dentists to set up in practice and proved popular with the profession, even if it fell short of Saunders's ideal of a fully developed state dental service.

At the beginning of the Second World War Saunders helped to establish the New Zealand Dental Corps, which examined troops and treated New Zealand forces overseas. With the rank of colonel, he commanded the 2nd Infantry Brigade of the Territorial Force from 1939 to 1941. After the war he broadened his horizons and became heavily involved with the activities of the World Health Organisation. He promoted New Zealand's school dental nurse scheme as a model worthy of emulation and acted as a dental health consultant to the governments of Hong Kong and the Philippines; he also helped to establish a training school for dental nurses in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in 1953.

Saunders realised, however, that New Zealand's dental health remained poor by international standards. Both the dental school and the quality of training had been run down by depression and war, and urgently needed upgrading. He responded by advocating a more preventative approach to dentistry, including the fluoridation of water supplies, and he worked with John Walsh to build a new dental school in Dunedin and to ensure that New Zealand-trained dentists were of an international standard. He was a member of the International Dental Federation and became an FRCS in 1948.

After retiring to Lower Hutt in 1955, Saunders found time to write a remarkably balanced history of the school dental services. He also served as provincial commissioner for the Wellington and Hutt Valley Boy Scouts Association. He died at Lower Hutt on 22 September 1961, survived by his wife and children. John Saunders had earned the respect of dental nurses, dentists and politicians alike, and his determination and ability to compromise enabled him to achieve much. The most influential public servant in the field, he can take much of the credit for the noticeable improvement in New Zealand's dental health after the Second World War.