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Dental Hygiene Celebrates 30 Years on Campus

Forty years ago so little was known in Canada about the dental hygiene profession that students interested in it as a career were often told, “If you could stand to look into another person’s mouth, you could become a dental hygienist,” laughs Professor Margaret Berry MacLean, the founder of the dental hygiene program at the U of A.

This year, as Dental Hygiene celebrates its 30th anniversary on campus, the program is favored with a surplus of qualified applicants. Through a selection process that considers academic standing and a personal interview, 429 applications were narrowed down to the 65 students who will commence the two-year diploma program this fall.

“Dental hygiene is changing significantly, because as caries decreases, people are keeping their teeth for a lifetime, and the need for preventative services is rapidly increasing,” says Professor Janice Pimlott, chair of Dental Hygiene. She says there is added demand now for services such as oral health assessment, preventative education and scaling and polishing teeth.

Tooth decay was rampant in the early 1900s, when the idea of a dental auxiliary concerned with preventative care developed. The first hygiene training program was established in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1913, and the first Canadian program was established in Toronto in 1951. The introduction of dental hygienists into Alberta was first suggested to the Alberta Dental Association in 1924 by pioneer Alberta dentist Dr O.F. Strong. The ADA board rejected the idea, and dental hygiene did not gain support until the late ’40s when the federal government offered grants to those who would agree to serve in public health after their training. Joan Engman of Edmonton accepted this offer, studied dental hygiene at the University of Michigan, and returned to Alberta as the province’s first dental hygienist in 1951.

In the same year, Margaret Berry graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree from Mount Allison University in New Brunswick. She recalls discussing with Mount Allison’s dean of women the public health education grant and her qualifications for the bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene at Columbia University. She candidly admits that, at the time, two years in New York was, for her, a major attraction of the profession! After completing the degree program, she became the provincial dental hygienist in New Brunswick and later the federal dental hygienist with the Department of National Health and Welfare in Ottawa.

Meanwhile, the ADA reconsidered dental hygiene in 1949, and suggested that the U of A institute a training program. Dentistry professor Hector MacLean, a strong advocate of the dental hygiene profession, was commissioned to survey dental hygiene training programs. One was subsequently proposed to the Alberta government in the mid-’50s, but rejected.

In 1958, Hector MacLean became dean of Dentistry and soon arranged with the Province to offer a two-year dental hygiene diploma at the University. This occurred in 1960 with passage of the Dental Auxiliary Act.

In January 1961, Berry became director of the two-year program, which commenced that September with 20 students. Each received a government bursary and in return served for two years with Alberta public health units. In 1962, the University approved the School of Dental Hygiene to train dental auxiliaries for both public and private practice, with Berry as director. For Dental Hygiene’s anniversary celebration this year, the first director, who retired in 1975, was honored to return to present the Dental Hygiene graduates with their diplomas. Later, Berry MacLean (she and Hector MacLean married in 1965) reminisced about the program’s early days on campus.

“I can’t give those early classes enough credit,” she says of her first students in Alberta. “They had an esprit de corps… they worked tremendously hard. At the time, dental hygiene was one of the heaviest programs on campus.”

The School of Dental Hygiene evolved into what is today the Dental Hygiene division of Dentistry’s Department of Dental Health Care, one of only three Canadian dental hygiene programs still taught at a university. Pimlott feels that dentists and dental hygienists get off to a good start by training together: “If you teach in isolation, you work in isolation.” She cites the research facilities and diverse expertise as characteristics that make a university the “ideal environment” for teaching dental hygiene.

“Collaborative care” is a term Pimlott uses to describe the interaction between dentists and hygienists which the program is fostering at the student level. “My prediction for the next couple of decades is that you’ll see the whole dental team — dental assistant, hygienist, and dentist — working towards prevention,” she says, stressing as well the importance of collaboration with other health care professionals. The Dental Hygiene division is involved in research nationally and internationally and students are also being exposed to research. “We are an expanding profession and we need research to develop our knowledge base,” Pimlott says. In recent years, senior dental hygiene students have presented their research to the Edmonton District Dental Symposium.

Along with these new considerations, the traditional components of the program are still in place: lectures, community work, clinical training, even public speaking. “I really felt it was necessary in order to have a well-rounded program for the students, because so much of a hygienist’s work is in community education,” says Berry MacLean of the first public speaking course. She recalls that Fred Bentley, dean of Agriculture at the time, was one of many University faculty members eager to help her in 1961. He taught a public speaking course to his students and offered to teach her students, as well. “The University was a wonderful place to be in those days, there was so much cooperation,” Berry MacLean says.

Dr Gordon Thompson, chair of the Department of Dental Health Care, says that while 60 per cent of the first year of the dental hygiene program is devoted to lectures, 70 per cent of the final year is spent on clinical work. This includes working in the clinics on campus and in the satellite clinics, and taking dental hygiene care to hospital patients. Pimlott praises the practising hygenists who serve as clinical instructors: “Many have advanced degrees or special expertise-they’re a top-notch group.”

Berry MacLean and Pimlott agree that the next step for dental hygiene in Canada is to develop bachelor’s and master’s degree programs. “As the profession grows, education programs have to grow,” Pimlott says. She says that bachelor degrees in dental hygiene are offered at the Universities of Toronto and British Columbia, and that several others have been proposed, including one at the U of A. This would allow students interested in public health or private practice to pursue the two-year diploma, while those interested in research or teaching could continue for an additional two years to complete a bachelor’s degree.

Dental hygiene education has been changing in another way: increasing numbers of men, including two in this year’s graduating class at the U of A, are joining the traditionally female profession. “Many of the acts that legislated dental hygiene in the States, and some in Canada, restricted the licensing to females,” says Berry MacLean. “The thinking was that if a male was allowed into dental hygiene… that he would step over the bounds and do the work of a dentist.” That legislation has disappeared and Pimlott emphasizes that gender is not a factor in the selection process at the U of A, adding that she is glad the program’s appeal is spreading: “It’s an indication of the changing times and the growth of the profession.”

Published Autumn 1992.

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