Wimbledon Heritage: The professional legacy of Wimbledon's royal dentist Edwin Saunders
Fairlawns, a Grade 2 listed house on Parkside overlooking Wimbledon Common, was once the home of Sir Edwin Saunders (1814-1901), a founder of modern dentistry who died there 112 years ago last week on 15 March 1901 and was buried at nearby Putney Vale a few days later.
Personal dentist to Queen Victoria, he was the first dental surgeon ever to be knighted and the first to occupy a position of special distinction in the British Medical Association. Last week also marked his 199th birthday on 12 March 1814.
He first moved into Fairlawns in 1853 when only 39 and decades later after retiring at the age of 80, he spent his last years there, cultivating chrysanthemums in a much loved garden that still survives today. But he also retained his connection with the dental profession, acting as trustee to several institutions.
Saunders’ role in the development of dentistry was highly significant. The son of a London publisher, from childhood he had shown an aptitude for mechanical work, experimenting with hydraulic power to propel ships and even invented a machine to sweep streets.
But instead of becoming a civil engineer he was apprenticed to a dentist in Southwark. At the end of three years he was thoroughly grounded in dental mechanics and started to practise in Surrey. He soon gained an excellent reputation and in 1839 became a Member of the College of Surgeons and was appointed a lecturer at St Thomas's Hospital.
He later worked on prosthetic devices for cleft palate and in 1846, took over a large dental practice specialising in this field at 13A George Street, Hanover Square. His base for the rest of his career, the practice could hardly have been more prestigious as its clients included the Queen and the rest of the Royal Family. Saunders was duly appointed to the Court as Surgeon-Dentist.
He was keen to demonstrate that dentistry – once practised by barbers rather than doctors – was really a true field of medicine and he became deeply involved in its recognition as a proper profession. In 1856 with the Dental Reform Association he petitioned the Royal College of Surgeons to grant a diploma in dental surgery and this came about three years later.
In 1857, he was a founder of the Odontological Society at his own house, becoming its first treasurer and later president. In 1859 he became a trustee of London’s first dental hospital and school in Soho Square which, supported by his own energy and generosity, proved highly successful.
Expansion became necessary and it was Saunders who found a new site for it in Leicester Square. The hospital reopened there in 1874 and when further extension was also needed, he himself bought the adjoining house, partly rebuilt it, and presented it to the hospital as a gift. Not surprisingly, the school established a Saunders scholarship in his honour. In the 1870s, he was a leader of the Dental Reform Committee which campaigned for the first legislation to regulate dentistry.
This led to the Dentists Act of 1878 which protected the term ‘dentist’, although not the actual practice of dentistry. While the reforms up to that time had made improved levels of training available – the general anaesthetic had been introduced in the 1840s and the local would follow 40 years later - the profession still had to await the Dentists Act of 1921 before practice would formally be restricted to fully qualified persons.
Nevertheless, in 1880 Saunders helped set up the British Dental Association as the official professional body and later became its president. At the International Medical Congress in London he led the dental section and became president of the metropolitan counties branch of the British Medical Association. It all led to his knighthood in 1883.
Today converted to flats, Fairlawns has been restored and is set behind gates overlooking Wimbledon Common. It has listed wood paneling with views over what are now communal gardens. A blue plaque recalls Saunders’ long and happy residence there.
The Wimbledon Society is working with the Wimbledon Guardian to ensure that you, the readers, can share the fascinating discoveries that continue to emerge about our local heritage.