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A Chair with a View: reflections on childhood dentistry





Early dentistry (but before my time)

I was in the Melville library one day recently, leafing through a book on early days on the Queensland cattle stations. Here, I came across a remarkable photograph. The author had titled it "the toughest man I ever knew". Depicted in the photograph was an old stockman, complete with riding boots and cabbage-tree hat, seated on the ground against a strainer post, removing one of his molars with a pair of fencing pliers.

The photograph and its commentary made me think about dentistry. I am lucky to have a very good dentist these days. It is one of the keys to enjoying old age. John, and his successor Ron, have been caring for and repairing my teeth for forty-five years now, and they run a patient-friendly and efficient practice, replete with the latest equipment, a clean well-lighted waiting room, and charming staff. I would not go quite so far as to say that I look forward to visiting the dentist, but the opposite is not the case. Entering the front door is not accompanied by a panic attack.

The same could not be said for my youthful experiences with dentistry, to which I was subjected by the family dentist Mr. Arnold 'Gig' Bible. For most of my childhood years I was in and out of Mr. Bible's surgery several times a year, and there was never an occasion in which I did not approach it without fear in my heart and quaking knees. My brother and sisters felt the same way, and our mutual disregard for the man, his dentistry and his charmless workplace, was part of our sibling solidarity.

The surgery was high in a tall building in St Georges Terrace in the centre of city, the Colonial Mutual Life building, one of Perth’s first skyscrapers.

The CML building in St George’s Tce, Perth, back in the day

From The Chair in Mr Bibles surgery there was a lovely view to the south through a mullioned window to the broad expanse of Perth Water. You could see the ferries ploughing their furrows back and forth across the river to South Perth. The view from The Chair was the only aspect of a trip to Mr Bible that I remember with any pleasure .... not that I usually had the time, or the opportunity to spend much time looking at it.

Mr. Bible was our family dentist for reasons of parental loyalty rather than any claim to special expertise. He had been a contemporary of both my father and mother at Perth Modern School in the years after World War I, and they felt they owed him their custom. Having attended 'Mod' (which was an academic scholarship school in those days) he must have been an intelligent and well-educated young man, and no doubt he went on from school to professional training - although I do not remember seeing any evidence of this, such as a framed degree on the wall.

When I knew him, he would have been in his mid-to-late forties. He was a doleful, lugubrious man who seemed either to be harbouring some melancholy secret, or was depressed, perhaps by his work. He spoke in an almost menacing whisper with a hint about it of "come here, young man, and take your medicine - it won't hurt ... much".  He had a joyless personality, and it was one that he had apparently displayed even as a schoolboy. His sarcastic nickname at Modern School was 'Giggles', in time shortened to Gig. My parents still called him Gig thirty years after leaving school. I never heard him giggle.

By a curious coincidence, Gig bore a striking physical resemblance to the farmer in the classic painting American Gothic. The coincidence arose from the fact (I discovered some years later) that the painter had used his local dentist as the model for the farmer in the painting.


American Gothic (1930) by Grant Wood

Gig's dental nurse was also an intimidating figure and could well have posed as the farmer's daughter in the painting. She was a large, grumpy woman, a middle-aged spinster. She wore her hair severely pulled back and was invariably dressed in a starched white nurse's uniform that reached almost to her ankles in one direction and was buttoned to her throat in the other. I never once saw her smile, although occasionally she would grimace (usually when Mr Bible struck a nerve with his drill), displaying a set of horsey teeth that seemed to me to be crying out for the attention of her boss. Discussing the situation with my brother years later, he said he always speculated that the two were having an affair, but I could not see it. How could two such unattractive people be attracted to each other? "But don't you see? That is the point!" my brother exclaimed.

Archival photograph of one of Australia’s first female dentists. The point of the picture, however is that she is wearing an exact replica of the outfit worn by Mr Bible’s dental nurse in the 1950s.

My dental appointments were always in the late afternoon, allowing me time to walk down to the Terrace from my school in West Perth. Mr Bible's surgery was on about the 5th floor, and to get there you had a choice of climbing the stairs or taking the lift. The lift was part of the whole scary scenario. It was one of those early-model elevators which was basically a steel cage dangling loosely on cables. As you ascended or descended, you could look out (or up) and see all the workings and hear the winding and clanking of the winches and the twang of the wire ropes. In my first few years visiting Mr Bible (when I was in primary school, and accompanied by my mother), the lift had an operator. He was a taciturn old fellow, with only one leg. He sat on a stool, his wooden crutch leaning up against the side of the cage beside him, and he worked a handle like a beer pump with which he could start and stop the lift and make it rise or fall. My mother always spoke to him in a kindly way, explaining to me once that he was a "victim of the trenches".  I don't remember that he was a particularly skilful operator, or maybe the thing was more difficult to drive than I realised. It often took him two or three attempts to stop at exactly the right spot, and he would jerk it up and down a couple of times before he got the inside door level with the outside door, causing the cage to bounce and swerve about. He would also take off upwards with an enormous jerk causing his passengers to gasp and stumble.  His responsibilities did not extend beyond working the lever - it was up to the passengers to open and shut the concertina doors, one on the cage and the other on the landing. This was a job that required considerable strength.

An image of an early lift cage, similar to the one in the CML Building in Perth in the 1940s

Later the building was modernised, the old soldier lost his job, and the passengers worked the lift themselves, using push buttons to select their floor. But it was still an un-nerving experience and there was always an expectation that you would be stuck between floors or that the whole thing would one day plummet to the ground when the ropes snapped. I generally climbed the stairs.

Mr Bible's waiting room was severe and minimalist. It was a small, windowless room with two or three hard chairs and a side table on which there was a fake potted plant and some reading material. I seem to recall that the reading material was back issues of the Australian Journal of Dentistry, but they were probably something jollier like the National Geographic magazine. The atmosphere in the waiting room was not enhanced by the fact that the sounds of dentistry in the surgery could be clearly heard - the whir of the drill, the cries of pain, the expectorations into the basin. Fortunately, I never had long to wait - Mr Bible ran his business to a tight schedule. I would hardly be seated when the door to the surgery would open and the nurse would usher out a schoolboy or girl, usually with a swollen jaw and a white, tear-streaked face. Nurse would look at me without expression and then beckon in a "get in here and none of your nonsense" sort of way.

Mr Bible's equipment, even in the 1940s and 1950s, seemed to me to be very old-fashioned. The chair did not recline, but he could raise or lower it by pumping a foot pedal. To one side was a basin into which you could spit, and a little elevated table at the patient's eye-level, on which his instruments were laid out on a white cloth. The instruments were stainless steel and they glittered in the light of a small gas Bunsen burner, a sort of eternal flame, into which he would dip his tools of trade to sterilise them before putting them in your mouth. The table also had a glass of blue fluid, the contents of which you used to rinse your mouth before spitting into the basin, and which the nurse immediately replenished from some secret container.

Mr Bible was handy with the steel probe and the pliers, but his speciality was drilling. This was usually done without anaesthetic, although I do recall once or twice having to have The Needle. This was truly an instrument of torture. The Needle was at the business end of a large syringe, similar to the sort used by vets when working with sick horses. Given the choice, I would usually opt for surgery without anaesthetic, as this was less painful than the needle, and I hated the after-effects of the anaesthetic. These lasted for several hours, and because your lips and jaw lost their muscle-tone, you would drool and dribble down your shirt-front.  This was not a good look in the bus on the way home.

The drill was on the end of a set of articulated arms, all the working parts of which were on display. You could actually see the various cogs and pulleys whirring around as Mr Bible bored remorselessly into one of your teeth. I am not sure how it was powered, probably by electricity, but whatever the power source it was inadequate. On a tough tooth the drill would slowly grind to a halt, and then Mr Bible would lift it out, and wait until the revs picked up and he could have another go.

The psychology of dentistry is different these days. Today you see nothing, other than an occasional pair of eyes over a mask, or a hairy forearm and a surgical glove, but back then you had the lot right in front of you: the glittering steel probes and picks, the gruesome extraction pliers, the great syringe with its 4-inch needle, the guttering gas flame, the whirring drill. You didn't need much imagination to see what was coming and to predict the discomfort it would bring with it.

Having excavated a cavity to his satisfaction, Mr Bible would then stuff your mouth with cotton wool and commence the filling. This was where the nurse came into her own. She mixed up the special brew that was used by Gig to fill cavities. This brew had the unfortunate characteristic of turning black when it set, a colour absolutely incompatible with white teeth. If a person had several fillings in his mouth (as I did), he would look like he had a mouth full of undigested currants. None of my schoolmates had black fillings in their teeth, so I could only assume that the material used by Gig was his own concoction, and that aesthetics was not high on his dental priorities.

I had poor teeth as a child, as did my siblings and most of my friends. Well, they were actually quite good strong teeth, but they did develop lots of little points of decay which needed to be drilled out and filled. This was probably a result of our nutrition. Although we were all skinny kids who ate plenty of fruit and vegetables, and no fast food, our sugar intake was high - I used to have two spoonfuls in a cup of tea and loved a boiled lolly. The dangers of sugar were less well recognised in those days. And of course, this was before the time of fluoridisation of the water supply in the 1950s which almost completely eliminated dental caries in Australian children.

When I left school and started on my forestry career one of my first marks of independence was to resign from Mr Bible's practice and acquire a new dentist. In this new practice the dentist was a young woman, recently graduated and with the most modern equipment and up-to-date 'chairside' manner. Her nurse was a pretty and charming young lady who had been in the same class as me at Nedlands State School. My dental life was revolutionised.

But while I remember Mr Bible, his dentistry and his environs with a shudder, it has to be said that he did a good job. Now aged in my 80s, I still have my own teeth and they still cope with most of the demands I make of them. Reflecting on this suggests to me that I should be remembering Gig Bible with respect and gratitude ... or at least with compassion. Think about all those years he spent in that dismal little surgery in the company of his humourless assistant!

I wonder if there were times when he briefly sat in The Chair himself, watched the sun on the river, and was cheered by memories of his school days and his loyal friends (like my mother and father), and felt proud of the way he was setting up his young patients for a future with serviceable teeth. Then perhaps he would have felt it was all worthwhile.

I hope so.


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Apr 23

Another entertaining yarn Roger.

As a child growing up in Mt Magnet in the 1950s and 60s, there was no town dentist so about once a year, the school was visited by what I assume was a government dentists and nurse, who did the rounds to regional towns in a large silver truck-like van fitted out as a dental surgery. Most of us had bad teeth requiring fillings because of high sugar intake, irregular brushing, and no fluoride in the water. The fillings were a silver/grey amalgam, some of which I still have!

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