Story: Dental care
In the 1960s, when New Zealand adults smiled, they often displayed a set of dentures. Since then, the focus of dental care and oral health has changed from pulling out decayed teeth to filling, restoring and improving the appearance of teeth – as well as continued efforts to prevent decay in the first place.
Full story by Andrew Schmidt
Main image: Ōtaki School dental clinic, 1971
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Māori oral health
The early Polynesian ancestors of Māori had problems with tooth decay around the age of 40. But from around 1500 AD, Māori began to eat tough foods, including fern root and shellfish. These wore down their teeth, but caused little decay. In the 19th century Māori often had better teeth than Pākehā.
Pākehā dental care
19th-century Pākehā had poor teeth and gums. Many used mouthwashes to prevent bad breath. At first, decayed teeth were not repaired, but pulled out by dentists, doctors, chemists or even blacksmiths. Many dentists focused on making false teeth.
From the 1870s a foot-pedal-operated dental engine allowed dentists to drill teeth so they could be repaired. New materials became available for filling teeth, and nitrous oxide (sometimes called laughing gas) was used to control pain during dental work.
From 1880 dentists could be registered, and in 1905 the New Zealand Dental Association was set up to represent registered dentists. Some dentists found the registration requirements restrictive.
A national dental school opened in 1908 at Otago University in Dunedin. In the 2000s dentists were still trained in Dunedin.
Wartime dental care
The New Zealand Dental Corps was set up in 1915. It provided dental care to soldiers during the First and Second world wars.
From the 1920s the government ran advertising campaigns to encourage healthy eating and care of teeth. From 1937 milk was provided free in schools, to give children calcium and strengthen their teeth.
School dental care
In 1921 the government set up the School Dental Service to treat primary schoolchildren’s teeth for free. Dental clinics were established in schools, run by female dental nurses. In the 2000s the service became the Community Oral Health Service.
The mid-20th century
From the mid-20th century the national dental school gained an international reputation, and new technology improved dentistry. However, many New Zealanders still had poor dental health – particularly poor people, Māori and Pacific people.
Changes in dentistry
Since the mid-1970s more women have trained as dentists, and in the 1990s dentists became more ethnically diverse.
There have been initiatives to provide better dental care to Māori communities.
In the past, people often had decayed teeth pulled out. In the 2000s most people kept their natural teeth. Dental care focused on caring for teeth and preventing decay. Cosmetic dentistry such as bleaching and braces also became popular.