From as early as 1883, an honorary dental surgeon was appointed to the hospital staff. His duties were to treat inpatients with severe toothache. Mr Arthur Hoby was the first to hold such an appointment, from 1883 - 1888. He was followed by Mr Richard Bulkley (1888 - 1908), Mr Wilfred Didsbury (1910 - 1913), and Mr E Gordon Bender (1913 - 1914). The honorary dental surgeon visited the hospital for one half day every fortnight. No equipment was provided at the hospital - the visiting dental surgeon brought with him anything required.
In 1913, the building on Hospital Road used as an Outpatient Department became vacant, following the opening of the new Laboratory and Outpatients building. Part of the Hospital Road building was converted into a Dental Department, comprising a large surgery for conservative treatment, anaesthetic and recovery rooms, and a waiting room and offices. A driving force behind the establishment of the dental department was Mr Knox Gilmour, President of the Wellington branch of the NZ Dental Association, who also donated money for the purchase of a dental chair. This was matched by a similar amount from Government, so that the department had two chairs. At a later date space was made available for a darkroom and X-ray room.
Mr Gordon Bender was appointed as the hospital's first full-time dental surgeon. He was assisted by visiting dental surgeons from the Wellington Dental Association. There were twentyfour dentists available for duty one day each every two weeks. The new department was in operation from 1914 but was officially opened in 1915. Within a short time however, the demands of WW1 resulted in a much reduced pool of available dentists, and eventually Mr Bender also left on active service. During his absence, Mr Frederick W Bond provided cover.
Mr Bender returned in 1919 and remained on staff until 1950. Post-war, Mr Herbert Rawson was appointed as Assistant Dental Surgeon and the honorary staff soon ceased to play a role at the hospital. In 1921, Mr Bender was granted a years leave of absence to travel to the USA for studies in anaesthesia and dental surgery. In his absence, the department was in the care of Mr Rawson, assisted by Mr William Hursthouse. The department rapidly expanded, and during the 1920s, there were four dental surgeons on staff assisted by two nurses and two technicians.
In 1928, the Dental Department moved into the newly-opened Front Block, and this was to be its home until 2004.
Its design was modern and based on ideas brought back from the USA by Mr Bender. There were initially six chairs in operation, though the new department had provision for ten chairs in all. Services provided included oral surgery, dental surgery, dental radiography, dental anaesthesia, orthodontics and dental prosthetics. In the 1930s, two additional services were developed - radium appliances for the treatment of oral cancer, and facial prosthetics.
Dental Department Staff : 1938 (photograph courtesy Joan Loeber)
By 1938 there were three permanent senior dental surgeons (one based in Lower Hutt) and eight junior dental surgeons. These were generally recent graduates, expected to stay for one year, but often leaving before that time resulting in considerable disruption. In 1937 branch clinics were opened in Lower Hutt, Upper Hutt, Muritai, Paraparaumu and Paekakariki, these being visited one day each week by various staff members. In 1938, Mr Nesbit was appointed as travelling Dental Surgeon and his duty was to attend all of these centres. The Paekakariki clinic was later moved to Porirua. After two years in Porirua, the clinic moved to Johnsonville, to a specially-built clinic. However, the Johnsonville clinic never functioned and was moved to Plimmerton. In 1944, with the opening of Hutt Hospital, the Lower Hutt branch clinic in Queens Road was closed and two full-time Dentists were appointed to Hutt Hospital.