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A Century of Oral Health Care

Early last century New Zealanders’ oral health was in pretty bad shape


In 1913 Dr Norman Cox, president of the New Zealand Dental Association (NZDA) proposed that to address the problem oral hygienists be trained at the dental school to treat children 6–14 years old. It was a controversial suggestion and one that did not initially gain traction.


World War I

During the First World War the poor state of the nation’s teeth again came into focus when many recruits needed extensive treatment to make them dentally fit to serve.


After the war the leader of the New Zealand Dental Corps, Colonel Thomas Hunter, pushed for the focus of dentistry to move from extraction to the restoration of teeth and the prevention of decay. As director of the new division of dental hygiene in the Department of Health, he successfully advocated the establishment of the School Dental Service (SDS) in 1921 to treat primary schoolchildren.1


School Dental Service

There was much controversy within the NZDA about the establishment of the SDS, but in the end delegates voted to support it. Training for the School Dental Nurse Program was established and the first set of dental nurses graduated from the new Wellington School in 1923. Further training schools were established in Auckland in 1952 and Christchurch in 1956. 


The graduating school dental nurses worked in dental clinics and mobile units attached to schools across the country. They provided diagnostic, preventive and treatment services for children and referred treatment beyond their skills to local dentists.


Click here for more images and information about the establishment and history of the dental nurse service.


A collection of interviews with past school dental nurses is held by the New Zealand Oral History Archive.


The First Association

The first dental therapy association was formed in New Zealand in 1935 and was known as the New Zealand State Dental Nurses’ Institute.


In 1995 members voted to create a new structure and to rename their organisation the New Zealand Dental Therapists’ Association (NZDTA). These changes were made in response to a changing industrial climate, an increasingly decentralised health service and to recognise that the NZDTA was the only national organisation representing dental therapists on professional issues.


The organisation has continued to evolve in response to the ever changing professional environment in which it operates. To best reflect its position and role in the oral health profession the NZDTA was renamed the New Zealand Dental and Oral Health Therapists’ Association in 2012.


Click here for more about the history of the dental and oral health therapy profession in Australia and New Zealand.


Link to:

A Friendly Career
The Murder House

Oral Histories

National Library of New Zealand

Te Ara - The Encyclopaedia of New Zealand
History of the Canadian Dental Therapists’ Association


1 Andrew Schmidt. 'Dental care - Dental nurses to dental therapists', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 29-Mar-11