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Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 6, Issue 4, 2001

A History of Dentistry in Nelson

A History of Dentistry in Nelson

page 7

Pre European

The earliest Maori inhabitants of Nelson were affected by caries and periodontal disease. Their relatively soft diet of kumara, yam, fish, birds, especially the moa, and seals, resulted in only moderate tooth wear. Teeth were lost through the ravages of decay, and edentulousness was common over the age of forty.

Around 1500 AD a major change occurred. The climate became colder and the diet, in consequence, much more limited, especially as much of the bird life had already been eaten. Fern root, gritty shellfish and other hard foods came to dominate the Maori diet. Increasing population also strained existing food resources, adding further to the monotony and harshness of the diet. Consequently, tooth wear increased dramatically, while caries virtually disappeared. Teeth, especially those in the back of the mouth, were completely worn out by the time Maoris of the classical period reached the age of twenty. European observers, such as Captain Cook, frequently misjudged the age of Maoris, as their toothless state made them appear to be much older than was really the case.

From the late eighteenth century, however, the pattern began to change once more, as the potato and kumara came to constitute a much greater part of the Maori diet. Tooth wear decreased, but caries and periodontal disease returned. Softer European foods, and sugar, tobacco and alcohol, coupled with a less active and healthy life style were the cause for this further deterioration. In short 'civilisation' had undermined the natural health of the Maori. Apart from chewing of fern roots, which had a natural cleansing effect on the teeth, little is known of early Maori attempts at oral health measures.

The Maori did, however, make good use of herbal remedies, using the extracts from bark, leaves and roots of native plants. The kawakawa, or pepper tree, was used to relieve toothache, as was the matipo or mapau, using a liquid made from boiling the leaves. To ease pain, a decoction of manuka or kanuka leaves was used, and similar use was made of the inner bark of the pukatea, which was steeped in hot water and placed over page 8the painful area. The boiled leaves of the koromiko hebe was used for a mouth wash and gargle.

Early Colonial Dentists in Nelson

The Sub-Professional Phase

The migrant ships which brought our forbears to Nelson sometimes carried with them surgeons and clergymen, upon whom often fell the task of relieving pain in its many forms, not the least of which was dental pain. Ships which had fewer than 40 passengers aboard were not required by law to carry a surgeon and, in these cases, the ship's master or his first mate was responsible for such rough dentistry as could be rendered.

Dentistry before the 1880s in Nelson was still at a primitive level of development. In fact dentists were scarcely distinguishable from other artisans and training was by apprenticeship only, as in any other trade. Essentially, dentists extracted teeth, a service also provided by chemists, doctors, blacksmiths and anyone else with strong wrists. No local anaesthetics were available and the only drill in use was operated by hand. Toothache was often treated at home with laudanum or alcohol, and halitosis was a major problem. A little repair work was carried out by the early dentists, but they were mostly tooth-pullers, who also made expensive sets of false teeth from ivory, gold, extracted human teeth or porcelain.

One interesting feature of the early dentists was that they tended to be occupationally versatile. A significant number were also chemists who distributed drugs and pills between extractions. This practice became more difficult following the introduction of registration for both dentists and chemists in 1880. One of the most interesting of this group was JW Tatton.

JW Tatton

John William Tatton was born in Cheshire, England, in 1821, and graduated in medicine at University College Hospital, London. In conjunction with a Dr Streatham he established the great Northern Hospital at King's Cross, London. Owing to ill health he was advised to leave England, and he came out to New Zealand as surgeon on the ship Camilla in 1858. He had two children, Cecilia, born in 1858 in the Bay of Biscay, and Arthur William, born in Nelson in February 1861. He beganpage 9
JW Tatton. (Copy Collection, Nelson Provincial Museum, C2643)

JW Tatton. (Copy Collection, Nelson Provincial Museum, C2643)

page 10to practise dentistry almost immediately after his arrival in Nelson, as the following notice from the Colonist in 1858 announces:

'Dr Tatton begs to announce that he has Opened a Store for the sale of pure and unadulterated drugs and Chemicals. (Direct from the Apothecaries Hall, from which he has made arrangements to receive a constant supply). Dr Tatton has commenced his operations in Practical Dentistry. Artificial teeth supplied, from one to a complete set, on reasonable terms. Stoppings and extractions also performed. Children's teeth regulated. Hours of attendance, 11 am to 4 pm Haven Road.

Having had many years' experience in practical dentistry he intends combining it with the above business. Artificial teeth from one to a complete set on reasonable terms. Stopping and extraction also carried out.'

Tatton had set himself up as a chemist and dentist in a building on Haven Road, near Saltwater Creek Bridge, where he had his druggist store and laboratory. Tatton was one of the first dentists in the country to light his rooms with coal gas, and to use it as a source of energy in manufacturing dentures and bridges. Tatton also succeeded in making his own nitrous oxide, more commonly known as laughing gas, in the 1870s, well before it came into common usage.

From Johnston's High Hopes we know that JW Tatton was not only a very versatile dentist and chemist, but that he also involved himself in mining, undertook ore analysis and manufactured pigment from chromite. His eldest son, Arthur, also a dentist, continued in his father's attempts to establish a mining industry based on the Mineral Belt.

He was involved in the Dun Mountain Company and was an advocate for numerous schemes in the town's development. From McAloon's Nelson: a regional history we learn that, following the hanging of the Maungatapu murderers in October 1866, Alfred Saunders and John Tatton obtained the heads of the executed men and made plaster casts of them. The pseudo-science of phrenology, whereby it was maintained that personal characteristics could be discerned from the shape of a person's head, was in vogue among the literati of Nelson at that time.

JW Tatton and Son moved to the corner of Selwyn Place and Trafalgar Street and, in 1888, demolished their surgery and built themselves a fine new building, as noted in the Colonist of 29 November 1888:

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'On account of the increase in business at the dentistry establishment of Messrs Tatton and Son, of Trafalgar Street, these gentlemen have decided to pull down their present building and erect a much larger one. The frontage to Trafalgar Street will be 37 feet, and to Selwyn Place 80 feet for the main building. The lower portion will consist of two large waiting rooms, surgery and workshops and a spacious hall'.

That building still stands today, and is one of the few buildings erected in that era to continue to grace Trafalgar Street.

JW Tatton died in 1891 and we read the following in his obituary in the Colonist:

There was scarcely a single mineral discovery, but the late Dr Tatton sought to make it profitable. His services were frequently sought for assays, and his means were always readily devoted to further such discoveries. He was well known throughout the Province, and he was well esteemed in the community'.

Two other dentists practising in Nelson during this early period were a Dr Sinclair, and W Wallis, a surgeon dentist practising in Bridge Street.

The Colonist of 16 June 1884 reported that an action was brought by Dr Sinclair against a Mr Crewdson in the Magistrates Court to recover the balance due for a set of artificial teeth. Mr Harley appeared for the plaintiff and Mr Fell for the defendant. The defendant had paid Dr Sinclair three pounds and, the charge for the set being 21 pounds, the plaintiff now claimed 18 pounds. The defendant said that he had permitted the cast of his mouth to be taken, and afterwards had tried the teeth, but had never agreed to give twenty guineas and, indeed, had insisted that he would not. The Doctor said that he never made a set without first agreeing as to the price.

His Worship, having heard all the evidence, said he was of the opinion that the defendant had clearly committed himself to the order and that, as there was nothing to show that the work was not well done, or that the price was extravagant, he would give judgement for the plaintiff, with costs of two pounds eleven shillings.

As to Mr Wallis, we note from the Nelson Examiner of 7 December 1859 that he was practising in Bridge Street, next to Aitken's Store:

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'Mineral Teeth fitted, from one to a complete set, without the extraction of roots or any painful operation. Decayed teeth filled. Teeth scaled and extracted'.

Semi-Professional Phase

From about 1880 major technological innovations revolutionised dentistry throughout the western world, and these were soon taken advantage of in Nelson. The most important was the introduction of the engine operated foot pedal, which enabled dentists to drill teeth and fill them on a large scale, and surpassed the old hand-held drill. At about the same time a new adjustable dentist chair became available, increasing the range of operations a dentist could perform. Conservative dentistry was made more feasible by the introduction of cheaper and improved filling materials such as guttar percha and various amalgams. Gold, however, continued to be used, as it was a long term material and the old dentists were skilled in its use.

Vulcanite rubber became available at this time, which helped bring about an improvement in denture construction. It was cheaper and lighter as a base for false teeth than the older carved ivory or metal bases. The availability of coal gas at this time, as a source of heat and energy, meant dentists could carry out a greater range of metallurgical work, using gold and other metals, for the construction of complex bridge work. Finally, dentistry benefited greatly from the innovation of nitrous oxide. Direct control of pain was now possible, and the range of operating possibilities greatly increased.

These various technological advances enabled dentists to become more highly skilled operatives, dentistry became more profitable and the esteem in which the profession was held was raised. The first Dental Act was passed in 1880, by which time there were about 50 dentists practising in New Zealand. By 1901 there were 282 registered and by 1905, when the New Zealand Dental Association was founded, there were 464 registered dentists.

Arthur Pitt, Member for Nelson City, was instrumental in promoting an amending Dental Bill in 1904 in the Lower House with TKS Sidey. The purpose of the bill was to provide for registration of the profession and it led to the establishment of a high standard of conduct and professionalism, and greater protection for the public. It introduced matriculation as a page 13prerequisite for undertaking the dental course, which was to be at the University of Otago in Dunedin.

The Dental Degree and the Dental Association

The New Zealand Dental Association was formed in 1905, with H Rawson as its first President and Arthur Hoby as secretary. This new Association's aims were to encourage diffusion of knowledge in the dental sciences and to promote the honour and interests of the Dental Profession.

Dunedin, with its association with the Medical School, was chosen as the site for the new Dental School, which opened in 1908. It was initially proposed to grant two types of qualifications in dentistry, a certificate or diploma, and a degree course. Control of dental education was now under one centralised body, the University of New Zealand. The Batchelor of Dental Surgery had been introduced in 1907. Prior to that time, aspiring dentists had had to travel overseas to obtain an acceptable level of training. The journey for training was usually to Philadelphia or Michigan in North America, to Ireland, or to Guy's Hospital in London.

A Nelson Branch of the New Zealand Dental Association appears to have started meeting in May 1925, which is the earliest record that we have from the old minute books. At that first meeting Messrs Squires, W Hoby, Shain, Tatton, Dodson, Parkes and Dodds were present. These meetings were held in the members' homes and, apart from the business of the association, one of the members always presented a scientific paper. These must have been very convivial meetings, as the minutes always concluded with such remarks as 'the business of the meeting being concluded the members spent a social hour with the host in the refectory' or 'this concluded the business of the meeting which adjourned to sup at the President's festive board'.

Improving Techniques and Technology

Anaesthetics and Anaesthesia

In the early days in Nelson, patients were offered general anaesthesia by chloroform and ether, which was dripped onto a face mask. Full dental clearances were carried out in the home, usually on the patient's bed, but frequently on the kitchen table, with poor lighting conditions and no suction. Later, nitrous oxide and oxygen was used, in later years with pentothal induction and endotracheal entubation. Up until the last decade, general anaesthetics administered by trained doctors were carried out page 14routinely in the dental surgery. That no longer happens. For local anaesthetics, cocaine was originally made up in test tubes and administered through a syringe. Cocaine tablets were used, dissolved in the test tube, and drawn up in the syringe.

Dentists were trained to make dentures in vulcanite which involved a tricky packing procedure, before steam pressure curing at 300+C in a pressurecooker like system. The dentures were difficult to polish. The early dentists were proficient in the casting of good gold inlays and it is not uncommon to still see such inlays today, made by men such as Bill or Lex Squires.

Before the advent of antibiotics it was essential to complete the operation as quickly as possible, to try and avoid the possibility of osteomyelitis. There was a tendency to leave broken roots behind and, of course, there were no X-rays.

In April 1921 the School Dental Service came into being, with thirty-five women beginning training as School Dental Nurses in Tinakori Road, Wellington, in what is now the Prime Minister's house. Some of you may well remember the trips to the Shelbourne Street dental clinic, commonly called the 'murder house,' where the drill was powered by a foot treadle. Dental nurses are now dental therapists, use a high speed water cooled dental drill and no longer wear a veil.

Nelson Dental Families

Down through the years there have been several families who have contributed to the dental profession in the Province.


We know of JW Tatton's exploits in both the dental and mineral fields. His son Arthur William, born in Nelson in 1861, went into practice with his father and there have been subsequent Tattons who have become dentists. Claude Egerton Tatton, Arthur's son, also practised in his grandfather's building in Trafalgar Street, in partnership with a Mr Spiers. He went to the USA and brought back one of the first dental X-ray machines in New Zealand. He contracted TB from a patient and died at at an early age leaving nine children.

page 15


Arthur Hoby, who graduated in Ireland with an LDS, was the first secretary of the New Zealand Dental Association when it was formed in 1905. GF (George) Hoby practised in Anstice's Buildings in Trafalgar Street. His son GAB (Tony) Hoby came to Nelson from Oarnaru and practised in Anstice's Buildings before moving in with Lex Squires, above Louis Kerr the jeweller's.


Henry Freer Rawson came to practise in Nelson between 1862 and 1873, during which time his advertisements appeared in the Nelson Examiner and The Colonist. His Nelson addresses were variously given as Mr Lockhart, Hardy Street, nearly opposite the Institute, Nile Street East, Trafalgar Square, and Brick House near the Bridge Street Bridge, (formerly Mrs Greenwood's school). He also advised of regular visits to Messrs Laking and Mitton's surgery in Richmond, and Dr Cotterell's surgery in Motueka.

While he was at the Hardy Street address in 1868 Henry Rawson became the talk of the town. It was reported in the Nelson Examiner that 'due to an incautious use of spirits of wine by night light' Henry Rawson and John Greenwood caused a major conflagration while employed in some dentistry operations. Lengthy reports appeared in both Nelson papers, describing how several houses were destroyed but, mercifully, the Panama Hotel was saved. The new fire hydrant system was used for the first time, but there was a sorry spectacle of firemen needing to douse the flames with buckets filled from a hose that was too short.

Henry was perhaps better noted for his paintings than his dentistry and was a friend and pupil of John Gully the artist. Both originated in Taranaki and both toured the country with their palettes and water-colour paints. He was a landscape painter and an engraver and one of his paintings, of the Omata Stockade, is in the Taranaki Museum. Henry died prematurely in 1879.

Henry's younger brother, Herbert Pearson Rawson, was our Nelson doctor Dr Dick Rawson's grandfather. Herbert had been apprenticed to study dentistry with Henry, who was 14 years his senior, and he took over his practice in Bolton Street, Wellington, on Henry's death in 1879. Although, like Tatton, he had mining interests in Nelson, Herbert never actually practised here. He was chairman of an optimistic but unsuccessful mining page 16enterprise which abandoned attempts to mine gold at Wakamarina Gorge near Canvastown in 1898. The company had the grand title of the Wakamarina and Deep Creek Gold Mining Company. The first President of the New Zealand Dental Association in 1905, he was often referred to as the 'father of dentistry' in New Zealand.


WW (William) Squires started practice in Louis Kerr's buildings in 1910. He was President of the New Zealand Dental Association in 1926, and was also a Life Member. Following the Murchison earthquake in 1929 he practised for a time at his home, on the corner of Bronte and Shelbourne Streets, while his place of practice was rebuilt.

Alexander (Lex) Squires also practised in Louis Kerr's buildings when he came to work for his father in 1935. He was away during the war years, but recommenced practice in Nelson in 1944. Both men were very skilled and innovative dentists, with Bill being a particularly fine prosthetist and gold worker, while Lex was innovative in the use of the new porcelain techniques and oral surgery. Lex was tragically killed in a car accident when he hit a small bridge on the Stoke Straight on 8 June 1948.


RB (Bernie) Beresford graduated from dental school in 1944 and went to work for his father, RW Beresford, in Taumaranui. Following military service during 1945/6, and a year's practice in Taumaranui, he commenced practice in Richmond, Nelson. He served on the NZDA Council for several years, was an examiner for the School Dental Service and was President of the NZDA in 1976. He was made a life member of the Nelson Branch in 1996.


It can be seen that over the years dentists have progressed from lowly artisans to full professional status. This has been achieved by the introduction of major technological innovations that have revolutionised dentistry throughout the western world. There has also been a major input from men and women of vision and clinical excellence, who have served the profession well. In Nelson they have not only served their profession, but they have also had a considerable input into their community.