Dentistry at Western University: the first fifty years

By David J. Kenny, Professor of Dentistry University of Toronto and Shelley McKellar Professor and Hannah Chair in the History of Medicine, Western University

Edward Hall was a Canadian physician and scientist who worked in Frederick Banting’s laboratory before serving as Director of Aviation Medical Research in the R.C.A.F. Immediately after WWII he was appointed Dean of Medicine at the University of Western Ontario and within two years became its president. Hall came to London with the vision to create Canada’s first integrated Health Sciences Centre and his presidency provided the opportunity to make it happen. The Centre would physically join Faculties of Medicine, Dentistry, Nursing, basic science laboratories and a teaching hospital. Hall began to consolidate his Centre on Western’s campus by moving the medical school from across town and seconding a Zoology building for his Department of Medical Research. Hall recruited Bertram Collip from McGill as Dean of Medicine and provided laboratories for his research team. Then, Hall turned his attention to securing a Faculty of Dentistry.

Hall and several key London dentists pressed forward, working to persuade politicians and reacting to competing bids to realize their objective. Success was neither certain nor immediate. Almost two decades later the Royal Commission on Health Services of 1965 led provincial governments to establish new Faculties of Dentistry at the University of British Columbia, The University of Western Ontario, The University of Saskatchewan and Laval. Western successfully competed with McMaster to become the site of Ontario’s second Faculty of Dentistry, on January 1, 1965.

Wesley Dunn, a Toronto dentist and founding Dean, set out to secure space, recruit faculty, meet the architects and review applicants for the ‘pilot class’ of eight that would arrive in September 1966. Western’s Dental Sciences Building was completed in two years and linked the recently completed Medical Sciences Building and University Hospital that was just beginning construction. Enrollment of the freshman classes of 1967-9 increased as laboratories and clinics became available in the Dental Sciences Building. Dunn set to work to deliver an innovative curriculum grounded in strong community-university relationships. Community dentists were recruited as part time clinical faculty and they shared a sense of pride and achievement for their Faculty. The dental students were a curiosity at Western, and were initially force-fed an overstuffed curriculum by an enthusiastic faculty that wanted to make sure nothing was missed. The students were a compliant lot whose feedback was solicited and accepted as faculty made changes ‘on the run’.

The fiscal and academic honeymoon ended with a recession that tested the new faculty’s ability to adapt. Nevertheless, dental students experienced an extraordinary level of education and developed skills that built Western’s reputation. New dental clinics at the university, homes for the aged and London teaching hospitals offered vastly improved care for medically compromised, aged and disadvantaged citizens. Cyclic recessions of the 1970’s and 1980’s drove governments to download expenses and change priorities from universities and healthcare to social issues driven by unemployment. University presidents faced prolonged unrelenting grant reductions and government warnings to prevent deficits.

President George Connell directed dentistry’s second Dean, Ralph Brooke to increase grant-supported research while Brooke’s concerns focused on faculty promotion and clinic equipment long past its duty cycle. Closures of some private dental schools in the United States led Canadian deans of dentistry to voluntary reduce enrollment and sparked rumours of closure of Western’s dentistry program in 1986. Western’s legacy curriculum continued to fall behind, as faculty was not replaced, and was beginning to threatened accreditation. Conditions were bad, but they were about to get much worse.

Within five months of each other, President Paul Davenport and Principal David Johnston of the Universities of Alberta and McGill, both threatened closure of their dental schools in 1991. McGill alumni launched an immediate response that included political pressure and generous fundraising. Alberta dentists responded with professional organization support, public petitions and lobbying. They split the Board of Governors’ opinion sufficiently that the Board decided an external search was required before Davenport would be offered a second term. Before this happened Davenport resigned from the University of Alberta to become president of the University of Western Ontario in 1995. Davenport planned to close dentistry at Western as well, by bundling a merger with medicine and targeted reductions to dentistry’s budget into the university’s strategic plan. Stanley Kogon, Director of Dentistry and the dental faculty fought a stubborn and prolonged war of attrition by meeting each and every targeted cut while educating dental students and maintaining accreditation. Their pride of profession, commitment to dental students, and the support of Robert McMurtry Dean of Medicine and medical faculty members, bolstered their resistance. Davenport announced in 1997 that the dental school would not close but the university would mortgage the dental school to cover the capital costs of clinic renovations. The annual ‘mortgage’ payments from dentistry’s operating budget meant no replacement of faculty who had retired or resigned and that in turn lead to a crisis in dentistry’s accreditation status. University presidents achieved a long-term goal when Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government deregulated tuition for the professions. Dental education soon became the most expensive health sciences program.

Harinder Sandhu became the next Director of Dentistry and by 2006 new clinics had been built and equipment replaced, the alumni had once again begun to support their school as the threat of closure had passed, and new faculty were being recruited. The merged Faculty was renamed the Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry in 2006 and Dean Carol Herbert of Medicine supported a 5 year program to revise the dental school curriculum. Dentistry’s CIHR Group in Skeletal Development and Remodeling expanded their basic research and a diverse clinical faculty was recruited. Dean Michael Strong of Medicine led a complete review of the dentistry program, and together with dental faculty, alumni and the community, developed a unified strategic plan for Medicine and Dentistry. Western’s School of Dentistry, a valued member of Western University’s Health Sciences Centre, celebrated its first fifty years in 2015.