Professor Stanley Gelbier
Hon Professor in the History of Dentistry
King’s College London
As well as being an eminent dental practitioner Dr John McLean OBE (1994-95), a past-President of the BDA, was a noted researcher. He was feted in many countries and was a visiting Professor in Fixed Prosthodontics and Biomaterials at America’s Louisiana State University. His particular research interests were in developing white filling materials. Subsequent to being appointed Clinical Consultant to the Laboratory of the Government Chemist, John, together with Dr Alan Wilson, introduced glass-ionomer cements to dentistry. This development opened up many new exciting possibilities for white fillings and established a new field of research and development in dental materials science.
When he died in 2009 John left money in his will to a number of organisations, including the British Dental Association. However he did not specify how it should be used, other than to promote research. So the question was how best to spend it.
John loved his profession. It was therefore decided to study and record the dental profession through the voices of living people, dentists and others. The studies were to take two forms: witness seminars and oral histories.
The concept of Witness Seminars in relation to medicine and healthcare came to the fore in the early 1990s and was developed by Professor Tilli Tansey at the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine and later at Queen Mary University London. In the Group’s 21st anniversary year they produced an excellent review booklet of the whole series. Having been at the Wellcome for eight years I learned a great deal about these seminars. So together with Rachel Bairsto (Head of Museum Services at the BDA) and Professor Nairn Wilson (former President of the General Dental Council) we formulated a programme to examine aspects of dentistry: to collect memories and insights into the world of dentistry in the UK especially, but not only, from the time of the onset of NHS dentistry in 1948.
Following discussion with the family and the BDA it was agreed to create an Archive which the Association’s CEO, Peter Ward, stated would be “the beginning of what we hope will provide a highly authoritative and valuable asset to future generations and thereby satisfy that aspiration”. He said the BDA intended that the Archive “will live and grow and metamorphose into a continuing story that maps the development of dentistry over years to come”.
Obviously Witness Seminars require a lot of planning. A number of appropriate people were approached, told of the topic and asked if they would participate; also asked if they could recommend anyone else who might have something to contribute to the discussion topic. The BDA appointed an administrative assistant to deal with all the arrangements: booking rooms and refreshments, telephone calls, letters and emails, arranging for recording equipment and typing.
On each day there were four hours of discussion, interspersed with breaks for refreshments. There were no papers but several people took a lead for specific topics, speaking for between three and five minutes. The chairman ensured people did not stray too far from the topic and that no one hogged the discussion. Every word spoken at the seminars was recorded and typed up. After initial editing by the chair for clear errors attendees were sent the typed script from their seminar to ensure accuracy and to add any afterthoughts (which could be inserted as footnotes). They were told that any of their filed papers or documents could be added as appendices. The documents were then revised and published in book form, with plans to make them accessible via the BDA website.
The publications are:
The regulation of the dental profession by the General Dental Council,
Changes in dentistry since 1948
The changing role of dental care professionals
The history and impact of development in dental materials over the last
The dental press
All were authored by NH Wilson and S Gelbier as part of the series ‘Reports of a Witness Seminar’, London: British Dental Association 2014.
In addition a number of oral history interviews have been recorded of both leading members of the profession, routine general dental practitioners and some ancillary workers.
So John McLean has provided the means to develop an excellent archive before so many of the people concerned are no longer alive.
For further information about the witness seminars and for access to the recordings and associated documentation please contact the BDA Dental Museum firstname.lastname@example.org
 PM Frost, Dr John McLean: His life and times, Dental Historian 2007; 44: 5-19.
 Obit John Walford McLean OBE, British Dental Journal 2009; 207: 187.
 EM Jones and EM Tansey (eds.) for The Trustees of the Wellcome Trust, Monoclonal antibodies to migraine; an A to Z of modern biomedicine, London: Queen Mary London University, pp 223.