A giant of dentistry who survived Churchill's jaws

Wilfred Fish and a Profession in the Making
February 24, 2006

J. D. Manson is a noted practitioner of periodontology, the causes and treatment of diseases of the gums and supporting tissues of the teeth. It is thus unsurprising that he has researched the life of his hero, Sir (Eric) Wilfred Fish (1894-1974). Manson's 18 chapters explore the life of one of the giants of British dentistry and his contributions to advances in dental science.

Fish was an excellent teacher, researcher and practitioner. In addition, he was involved in the dental profession's struggle to gain independence from medicine. He was the only dentist to have been dean of the dental faculty of the Royal College of Surgeons of England and director of its department of dental science.

Fish studied at Manchester University, gaining medical MB and ChB and dental LDS qualifications. Manson suggests that Fish was strongly influenced by his chemistry lecturer, Chaim Weizmann, a future president of Israel, and Ernest Rutherford, the father of atomic physics. They and their colleagues taught him to conduct high-quality research, but it was hard to find support.

Fish used cash from a thriving practice in Sevenoaks to pay University College London for the use of research facilities in its physiology department. His MD thesis was titled "Cardiovascular Effects of Local Anaesthetic Injections". There followed research at the Royal Dental Hospital of London, the Royal College of Surgeons and St Mary's Hospital.

Fish translated his findings into improved clinical skills, writing key textbooks on "parodontal disease" and "pathology of the mouth". He opened a practice in Cavendish Square, where patients included Lord Beaverbrook and Winston Churchill.

A story Fish liked to tell at his own expense was that when making a denture for Churchill, he mentioned a book he had written on the subject.

Unhappy with his treatment, Churchill delayed payment. He eventually sent a cheque with a note saying: "I know you have written a book about dentures, but I think you should read one!" Nevertheless, Churchill would remain his patient for many years.

In 1944, the Privy Council appointed Fish chairman of the Dental Board of the UK, which was then a subcommittee of the General Medical Council. In 1956, the board was replaced by the General Dental Council, and Fish was elected its first president. That year, he also became dean of the dental faculty of the Royal College of Surgeons. He was honoured with a knighthood in 1954.

His efforts were not entirely confined to dentistry. In his spare time, Fish even made some of his own furniture.

This very readable work will be of interest to dentists and other people fascinated by the struggles that some professionals have in developing their interests. Manson's book is filled with information, but a further edition would benefit from an index and a bibliography.

Stanley Gelbier is emeritus professor and honorary senior research fellow, Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine, University College London.

Wilfred Fish and a Profession in the Making: A 20th-Century History of the British Dental Profession

Author - J. D. Manson
Publisher - Esmeralda Press
Pages - 265
Price - £24.00
ISBN - 0 9536102 1 7

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