Story: Dental care

In the 1960s, when New Zealand adults smiled, they often displayed a set of dentures. Since then, the focus of dental care and oral health has changed from pulling out decayed teeth to filling, restoring and improving the appearance of teeth as well as continued efforts to prevent decay and gum disease in the first place.

Story by Andrew Schmidt and Susan Moffat
Main image: Ōtaki School dental clinic, 1971

Story summary

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Māori oral health

The early Polynesian ancestors of Māori had problems with tooth decay around the age of 40. But from around 1500 CE, Māori began to eat tough foods, including fern root and shellfish. These wore down their teeth, but caused little decay. In the 19th century Māori often had better teeth than Pākehā.

Pākehā dental care

19th-century Pākehā had poor teeth and gums. Many used mouthwashes to prevent bad breath. At first, decayed teeth were not repaired, but pulled out by dentists, doctors, chemists or even blacksmiths. Many dentists focused on making false teeth.

From the 1870s a foot-pedal-operated dental engine allowed dentists to drill teeth so they could be repaired. New materials became available for filling teeth, and nitrous oxide (sometimes called 'laughing gas') was used to control pain during dental work.

Professional dentistry

From 1880 dentists could be registered, and in 1905 the New Zealand Dental Association was set up to represent registered dentists. Some dentists found the registration requirements restrictive.

Dental training

A national dental school opened in 1907 at the University of Otago in Dunedin. In the 21st century dental specialists, dentists and dental technicians are educated at Otago, while oral health therapists (previously dental therapists and dental hygienists) are educated at Otago and at Auckland University of Technology (AUT).

Wartime dental care

The New Zealand Dental Corps was set up in 1915. It provided dental care to soldiers during the First and Second World Wars.

School dental care

In 1921 the government established the School Dental Service to treat primary schoolchildren’s teeth for free. Dental clinics were established in schools, and run by female dental nurses. In the 21st century the service is known as the Community Oral Health Service.

The mid-20th century

From the mid-20th century the national dental school gained an international reputation, and new technology improved dentistry. Fluoridation was introduced, resulting in better oral health for those exposed to fluoridated water. However, many New Zealanders still have poor dental health – particularly poor people, and Māori and Pasifika people.

Changes in dentistry

Since the mid-1970s more women have trained as dentists, and from the 1990s dentists and oral health professionals have became more ethnically diverse.

There have been initiatives to provide better oral health care to Māori and Pasifika communities, and to increase the Māori and Pasifika dental and oral health workforce.

In the past, people often had decayed teeth pulled out. In the 21st century most people keep their natural teeth. Dental care focuses on caring for teeth and preventing decay and gum disease. Orthodontics and cosmetic dentistry (such as tooth whitening) have also become popular. Whereas routine care is free for children and adolescents, most adults have to pay privately for oral health services in New Zealand. People on low incomes can access free emergency dental care for treatment such as pain relief and extractions.

How to cite this page:

Andrew Schmidt and Susan Moffat, 'Dental care', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 July 2024)

Story by Andrew Schmidt and Susan Moffat, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 6 November 2018