Dentistry Accessible Text – Panel and labels:

‘Dentistry in St Andrews’

No one enjoys a trip to the dentist, but compared to our ancestors, we have it easy. 200 years ago, dentistry was far from an established profession. Anyone with the right tools would carry out extractions: barbers, goldsmiths, or so-called ‘tooth-drawers’ touring the country. There was no preventive healthcare, no filling of teeth and no pain relief.

The early days

Since the 18th century dentures had been made from ivory or porcelain. Even human teeth were sometimes used for a realistic look. But as medical research advanced, so did dental prosthetics. In the 19th century preserving teeth by filling them with gold or other metals became more common. This required working with delicate materials like gold wire, and as a result, jewellers often became involved in dentistry. As did David Duncan, a jeweller from Cupar, who began a family tradition of dental work in 1840.

Developing dentistry as a profession

Duncan’s son continued in the profession. There was no formal education for dentists, so he worked as an apprentice in Edinburgh. During his time there, he kept his father in Fife up to date:

‘[…] an American had come to Edinburgh to sell all the right of making artificial dentures in vulcanite. […] I managed to get all the secret from the man as he liked a dram […] I invited him into a pub and after a glass or two his tongue loosened’.

William Duncan’s Memoirs, 1918

Vulcanite was a hard rubber that could be easily moulded, looked reasonably flesh-like and was cheaper than ivory. The material revolutionised denture making and made artificial teeth available to a wider public.

In the 1860s and ‘70s dentists worked from home, setting up a surgery and workshop in spare rooms and receiving patients downstairs. The Duncan family set up their practice in Murray Park, St Andrews, in the 1880s and continued to work there until the 1960s.

Modern dentistry

By the 1930s, when David Duncan’s great-grandson William started working in the family practice, dentistry had become a modern profession. Dentists underwent qualified training, treatment was more effective and less painful, and access to it widely available.

After retiring, William Duncan donated a collection of furniture, tools and equipment used in his family’s dental practice to the St Andrews Preservation Trust. Today, they give us a glimpse into more than a hundred years of dental history, both in St Andrews and Britain.

‘Lillian Lindsay – First Lady of Dentistry’

Photography of Dental Hospital in Edinburgh, 1892/93

This picture shows John Ainslie Duncan with colleagues at the Dental Hospital in Edinburgh. To his left we can see Lilian Lindsay, the first woman who qualified as a dentist in the United Kingdom.

Lilian was born in 1871 the third of eleven children. She won a scholarship at a girl’s-school in London but lost the grant in 1889 after an argument with the headmistress. They disagreed over Lilian’s career choice: She wanted to become a dentist.

After working as a dentist’s apprentice, Lilian wanted to learn more about dentistry. She applied for entry to the National Dental Hospital but was advised against attending. At the time, the London Dental Hospital did not allow women to sit their examinations. Even the interview was held outside the building because the dean feared she might distract male students.

In Scotland, however, women could enter university, so Lilian applied to the Edinburgh Dental School, where she was accepted. After qualifying in 1895, she built a brilliant career as a dentist, becoming President of the British Society for the Study of Orthodontics and the first female President of the British Dental Association, amongst many other distinctions.

Today, an English Heritage blue plaque in her former home in Islington honours Lilian Lindsay, the ‘First Lady of Dentistry’.

Labels on the bench

‘In the Workshop’

This jeweller’s bench was used in the Duncan’s workshop. Nowadays, most dental work is sent out to laboratories, but in the 19th century all that was carried out by the dentists himself. Here they worked unseen by the patients, making dentures and preparing materials for crown fillings.

‘In the Dentist’s Practice’

Like today, a visit to the dentist in the 19th century meant having your teeth checked and – in the worst case – removed by tools like the ones here. The dentist might also have showed his patients various models of artificial teeth or recommended a brand of toothpaste to use.

‘Metal roller’

Metal roller, mid 19th century.

This metal roller was used to flatten gold block into a sheet. Each time the block was fed through, the rollers would be tightened.


Anvil, 1881.

This stand was from the mast of a ship that wrecked in St Andrews Bay in 1881. William Duncan repurposed it into an anvil for his workshop.