I retired from dentistry exactly one year ago. This is how I got started 36 years ago…
I began studying dentistry after I had completed my PhD in physiology in 1976. My original intention was to obtain a clinical degree so that I would be able to widen the choice of post-doctoral opportunities beyond the field of specialisation relating to my doctoral thesis.
I entered the dental school at University College London (‘UCH’) ‘armed’ with a doctorate. There were two kinds of teaching staff at the school. The academic staff were attached to the University and the clinical ‘demonstrators’ were dentists who came into the hospital on a part-time basis to assist with teaching in the clinics where the students learned to treat patients. All the demonstrators used to address me as ‘Doctor Yamey’, but the academic staff, many of whom did not have PhDs, used to address me as ‘Mister Yamey’.
At the end of each course we studied, we would have to pass an examination. This consisted of a written paper along with a practical examination. All of the examinations included a face-to-face spoken test, a ‘viva-voce’ (or ‘viva’).
During my pharmacology viva, I was asked several questions by a pair of examiners. One of the examiners told me that I had answered one question incorrectly. I was sure that I had answered correctly, so I said: “I am certain that what I have said is right.” The two examiners looked at each other, and I began to worry. Then, the examiner who had not contradicted me said: “You know, he’s right.”
During another viva, the task was to look at a microscope slide, and then to comment on it to the examiners. When I had looked at the slide, I turned to examiners, and thought I heard one of them saying: “Where is it from?” Absentmindedly, I said: “It’s an unusual surname. It originates from Lithuania.” I had thought that I was being asked about my name, rather than the slide. Fortunately, I was able to give a satisfactory account of what I had seen under the microscope.
At the end of the first year, we were examined in general human anatomy. I entered the room where my viva was being held and sat down with the two examiners. One of them, an external examiner, said to me: Do you remember me?” I looked at him blankly before he said: “I used to meet you walking on Hampstead Heath with your parents. Please give them my regards.” At that moment, I knew that I had passed the examination.
The final year examinations, which determined whether you would or would not be awarded a degree in dental surgery were quite harrowing. Most people considered that the viva conducted by the dean of our dental school and a dean visiting from another dental school was the most frightening part of the finals. And, when I took the finals, we learnt that the visiting dean, the external examiner, had a fearsome reputation. So, I was somewhat nervous when I entered the room to face the deans. After answering a couple of questions evidently satisfactorily, the dean of our dental school said: “Well, of course we’re looking forward to you joining our staff when you qualify…” At that moment, I realised that I must have qualified. I said that during the five-year dental course, I had discovered that I enjoyed treating patients, and that I would enter practice rather than academia.
One of the many things that appealed to me about practising dentistry is the constant contact with a huge variety of people. This is not the case in academic research. It can be a lonely business. The other appeal of practising dentistry is that often, but not always, a problem can be identified and solved. Someone loses a filling. The dentist replaces it: problem solved. In academic research, as each question begins to be solved, many others present themselves: it is never-ending.