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 in the first place.

Story by Andrew Schmidt
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 AD, 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 1908 at Otago University in Dunedin. In the 21st century dentists were still trained in Dunedin.

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.

Government involvement

From the 1920s the government ran advertising campaigns to encourage healthy eating and care of teeth. From 1937 milk was provided free in schools, to give children calcium and strengthen their teeth.

School dental care

In 1921 the government set up the School Dental Service to treat primary schoolchildren’s teeth for free. Dental clinics were established in schools, run by female dental nurses. In the 21st century the service became 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. However, many New Zealanders still had poor dental health – particularly poor people, Māori and Pacific people.

Changes in dentistry

Since the mid-1970s more women have trained as dentists, and in the 1990s dentists became more ethnically diverse.

There have been initiatives to provide better dental care to Māori communities.

In the past, people often had decayed teeth pulled out. In the 21st century most people kept their natural teeth. Dental care focused on caring for teeth and preventing decay. Cosmetic dentistry such as tooth whitening and corrective braces also became popular. Most adults have to pay privately for dental health services in New Zealand. People on low incomes can access free emergency dental care for things such as pain relief and extractions.

How to cite this page:

Andrew Schmidt, 'Dental care', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 26 September 2018)

Story by Andrew Schmidt, published 5 May 2011, updated 1 Jul 2017