John Smith was a pioneer of dental training in Scotland, who planned and delivered the first lecture course in dentistry in Scotland. He was a joint founder of the Edinburgh Dental Dispensary which later evolved into the Edinburgh Dental Hospital and School.
John Smith was born in Edinburgh, the son of a dentist. He attended school at the Edinburgh Institution (later to become Melville College and then Stewarts- Melville College). From school days his talents for drawing, for playing the violin and for song writing were apparent. He graduated MD from the University of Edinburgh and received the LRCS diploma from the Medical School of the College of Surgeons. Shortly after graduation, he went to London and to Paris with his lifelong friend, Dr (later Sir) Henry Littlejohn. During his visit to Paris, he was to witness the street fighting during the revolution which was to result in the Second Republic. He made drawings of gunshot and sabre wounds which Professor James Spence was later to to use in his lectures on military surgery
On the death of his father, he decided to pursue a career in dentistry and with his friends, Robert Nasmyth and Francis Imlach, he was to form the nucleus of what was to become the Edinburgh Dental School. In Scotland in the mid 19th century there was no formal training available in dentistry. Prospective dentists had to travel to London. Smith was to give the first formal series of dental lectures in Scotland, entitled “Physiology and Diseases of the Teeth” which he delivered in the College starting in 1856. The following year he was appointed Dentist to the Royal Public Dispensary. He quickly appreciated the need for a dispensary devoted exclusively to the treatment of dental problems and, along with Robert Nasmyth and Francis Imlach, he opened the Edinburgh Dental Dispensary in Drummond Street, a few yards from the College, in 1860. On the basis of this, he achieved recognition that attendance at the Dental Dispensary should be recognised by the Royal College of Surgeons of England as part of the curriculum for the Diploma in Dental Surgery. For the first time, trainee dentists in Scotland did not have to incur the expense of travelling to London to gain training experience. The Dispensary expanded, moved to Cockburn Street and finally evolved into the Edinburgh Dental Hospital and School. Widely regarded as the father of this institution, he was also a principal moving force in the founding of the Royal Edinburgh Hospital for Sick Children. It was fitting that he became the first dental surgeon to the Children’s Hospital and also to the Royal Infirmary. He was made Surgeon-dentist to Queen Victoria in 1871.
He was active in the College as a Member of Council, going on to become President in 1883, and was awarded the LLD from Edinburgh University on the occasion of its Tercentenary the following year. His national status was recognised by his election as President of the British Dental Association.
Smith was a prodigious writer on many aspects of dental practice. His friendship with Simpson meant that he was involved in the practice of anaesthesia from its earliest days. In 1905 he wrote a brief history of the College to commemorate the quartcentennary.
His literary contributions outside medicine and dentistry were even greater. He was a member of the Aesculapian Club, the Medico Chirurgical Society and the Odonto Chirurgical Society and was, perhaps, the most gifted writer of songs in the history of these societies. His literary expertise extended to writing pantomimes, three of which were professionally produced by his friend, Robert Wyndham, a member of the family which was to found the Howard and Wyndham group of theatres. In his latter years he was able to indulge his writing, painting and music.
British Dental Journal; 27 April 2012; v212(8); p387-9