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Our History

A short history of The Royal Odonto-Chirurgical Society of Scotland


Extract from The Royal Odonto-Chirurgical Society of Scotland 1867-2017: 150 Years of Progress by Paul R Geissler

The Odonto-Chirurgical Society of Scotland, founded in 1867, is the oldest dental society in the United Kingdom, if not the world, still actively functioning under its original title (the use of the title “Royal” was granted in November 1966) and upholding the original objectives. Its root are traceable to January 1865, when John Smith invited a few surgeons to meet in the Edinburgh Dental Dispensary, with the purpose of founding a society of persons practising ethical dentistry.

John Smith was a man with foresight and concern for the welfare of his fellows. Born in 1825, son of a surgeon who practised dentistry, he qualified in surgery in 1847. On the death of his father in 1851 he carried on the dental practice at 12 Dundas Street, Edinburgh. In the 1840s and 1850s the dental state of the population of the city was very poor. In 1860, along with his friends Francis Imlach, Peter Orphoot and Robert Naysmith, John Smith founded the Edinburgh Dental Dispensary to give clinical instruction to student dentists and also to provide dental care for the poorer citizens of Edinburgh.

At the meeting John Smith called in January 1865, those present were David Hepburn, Robert Naysmith, Peter Orphoot, Andrew Swanson, Matthew Watt and John Wright. John Smith suggested the title “Odonto-Chirurgical Society of Scotland” and submitted a code of rules which he had drafted. However, there were differences of opinion about whether membership should be restricted to those with a surgical qualification. This could not be resolved and after two meetings the idea was abandoned. David Hepburn, however, was convinced of the ultimate success of the proposal.

To understand the problems in founding such a society one has to realise the state of dentistry at the time. To very few did it appeal as a profession. Dentistry at that period was unscientific and crude; training was at best by apprenticeship. The majority of those who practised dentistry were charlatans, many being illiterate. For the man in the street in the 1860s, there was no way to recognise the ethical from the unethical dentist or even the charlatan. A revolution in the education and training of dentists and in the regulation of dentistry was required. However, the first Dentists Act was not to be enacted until 1878 and the British Dental Association was not incorporated until 1880.

It required some notable person or persons to give the impetus. An initial breakthrough had occurred in England in 1860: the Royal College of Surgeons of England had introduced the Licentiate in Dental Surgery (LDS) diploma and the first graduation had occurred on 13th March that year. The practice of the surgeon-dentists having a dinner on 13th March, the anniversary of the introduction of the LDS diploma had lapsed in London by 1867, but was continued in Scotland. David Hepburn used the occasion by inviting the surgeon-dentists practising in Scotland to meet on 13th March, prior to the LDS dinner in the Douglas Hotel, St Andrew Square. On his suggestion it was decided to found the Odonto-Chirurgical Society of Scotland and to adopt the laws and constitution, with some alterations, which John Smith had drafted two years earlier.

The founding of the Odonto-Chirurgical Society proved a great stimulus to the ethical and scientific progress of the profession in Scotland.

Details of all our Past Presidents are available at The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh Digital Collections