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Lilian Lindsay (1871 - 1960)

The first British woman to qualify as a dentist and the first female president of the British Dental Association.

Lilian Lindsay
Courtesy of Lothian Health Services Archive, University of Edinburgh.

Born in 1871, Lilian lived at a time when dentistry was an overwhelmingly male profession. Women were effectively excluded from dentistry as they were not permitted to obtain the required qualification, the Licence in Dental Surgery.

Determination and ambition

Lilian’s school teacher encouraged her to become a teacher, which was regarded as a more conventional career for a woman. When Lilian insisted on following her chosen career path of dentistry, the school teacher revoked Lilian’s scholarship.

Without the funds for school but determined in her plans, Lilian found a three-year apprenticeship in dentistry. Ambitious for more, she later registered as a dental student.

When she applied to the National Dental Hospital in London, the then Dean insisted on interviewing Lilian on the street. He was worried that her mere presence would distract his male students! Unsurprisingly, he refused to accept her as a student.

A model student

Scotland was more advanced than England in allowing women entry to university, so Lilian headed north and applied to the Edinburgh Dental School. To her delight, she was accepted on the course. Yet some were unhappy with this outcome, and the Scottish surgeon Sir Henry Littlejohn is reported to have said, I am afraid, Madam, you are taking the bread out of some poor fellow’s mouth.

Lilian was the only female student at the time but this did not hinder her success. She was awarded the Wilson medal for dental surgery and pathology and the medal for materia medica and therapeutics in 1894.

In a situation familiar to most of today’s graduates, Lilian had to re-pay the funds she had borrowed to attend university after she qualified in 1895. She returned to London and set up a dental practice with financial assistance from her uncle and a further loan.

It took her ten years to pay off her loans and after this she returned to Edinburgh. She married Robert Lindsey, who she had met ten years earlier at dental school. They practiced dentistry together at 2 Brandon Street, Edinburgh.

Dental historian

In 1920, Robert became the secretary of the British Dental Association (BDA) and the couple retired from practice and moved to London. Lilian became honorary librarian at the BDA. Here, she contributed to dental history by collecting dental books and dental items that became the foundation of the dental museum. She expanded the collection from just 350 items to over 10,000.

She became subeditor of the British Dental Journal in 1931. She published many papers and at least ten are regarded as having major historical importance.

Lilian went on to become the first woman president of the BDA in 1946. She received many honours and awards, including an honorary degree from the University of Edinburgh.

Lilian’s ground-breaking achievements paved the way for others to follow in her footsteps; today more than half of UK dental students are female and by 2020 it is estimated that over half the dental workforce will be female. Lilian’s name is remembered by Lindsay Society for the History of Dentistry, which is dedicated to promoting research into the history of her beloved profession.

Related links

Edinburgh Dental Institute

British Dental Association: Women in dentistry