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In the month where we celebrate International Women’s Day, which recognises the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women, we look back and reflect on Lilian Lindsay CBE, and how she shaped dentistry in the UK.

A Step Change for Dentistry

Dentistry was traditionally seen as a male-dominated profession but, according to data from the NHS, the number of women in dentistry has been steadily rising for the last decade. According to The General Dental Council Registration Statement Report 2021, 51.5% of dentists registered in the UK were female. This is a stark comparison to the register of 1923 that listed women as only 2% of total dentists registered. Going back even further to 1895, this was the year that the first licensed female dentist in Britain began to practise, and her name was Lilian Lindsay. 

A Battle to Accomplish her Dream

Lilian Lindsay was born in London in 1871 and from a young age she was determined to achieve her dream of becoming a dentist. In a time when there were no female dentists, Lilian Lindsay gave herself a difficult task to accomplish.

After leaving school in 1883, she worked as an apprentice to a dental surgeon and became a registered dental student. She tried unsuccessfully to enrol at the dental school of the National Dental Hospital in London; she was interviewed on the pavement outside as women were not allowed to enter the building for fear of distracting the men. Thwarted in her aim of training in England, she went to study at Edinburgh Dental Hospital and School.

Building a Successful Practice

After qualifying, she set up a practice in Upper Holloway, London. The practice proved successful, and after she married a fellow dentist, Robert in 1905, the couple set up their own dental practice in Edinburgh. In the 1920s, they retired and made their way back to London, where Lindsay found a new role as the British Dental Association’s honorary Librarian. During this period she wrote over fifty journal articles on the history of dentistry, and published a book. She even remained in London during the Blitz, refusing to leave the library and her work there.

In 1945, in her golden jubilee year as a dentist, she told a reporter how, fifty years after qualifying, that there was “still a certain amount of prejudice against women dentists but not as much as she had to fight when she first chose her career.”

Recognition for Achievements in Dentistry

In 1946, at the age of 75, she was recognised for her pioneering achievement and earned the respect of her fellow dentists who elected her the first female president of the British Dental Association. She was also awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Edinburgh and was awarded a CBE. 

She continued to expand the BDA library until her death in 1960 and received a number of awards and honorary degrees during this time. She once said that she believed the recipe for a good dentist was “a good constitution, good eyesight, and a skilful pair of hands.”

Dentistry has a lot to celebrate in terms of the roles women have played in its development and the huge contributions women continue to make today. Dr Linsay’s portrait hangs in the entrance and library of the BDA headquarters in Wimpole Street, London, and she remains an inspiration to this day.

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