British Dental Journal 195, 723 (2003)
Published online: 20 December 2003 | doi:10.1038/sj.bdj.4810852

Sir John Patrick Walsh KBE

Alastair Stokes

Sir John Patrick Walsh KBE

Professor J P Walsh, Dean of the University of Otago School of Dentistry from 1946 to 1971 died recently in Auckland, New Zealand. He was 92.

Sir John Patrick Walsh KBE

It is impossible for one dentist to personally chronicle the achievements of this remarkable man. He studied dentistry and medicine in Australia after starting working life as an apprentice dental mechanic. He graduated with first class honours in dentistry in 1936 and followed this with a medical degree. By the end of WW II he was a medical officer in the Royal Australian Air Force and in 1946 he was appointed Dean at the school of dentistry in Dunedin, New Zealand. He transformed the school, broadening the scientific and clinical base, encouraging research and introducing a vigorous postgraduate programme. At the same time he was deeply involved in both national and international activities. In New Zealand he led an ultimately successful battle to fluoridate city water supplies, for which the related decline in dental caries speaks all. Internationally he was a key worker for dentistry with the World Health Organisation.

It is impossible for one dentist to chronicle the achievements of this remarkable man...he is owed a great debt of gratitude by all those who benefited from his pioneering work with the high speed drill.

During his deanship Sir John persuaded a reluctant government to fund a major new building. This was opened in 1961 and was a revelation to me, moving into the "new" school for my final undergraduate year. Here was state-of-the-art dentistry with that marvel of the 1960's, high speed drills available in special circumstances. Few of my generation were aware of Sir John's role in this remarkable development. His involvement commenced while he was conducting discharge medicals in Melbourne in 1946. He observed the relation between the frequency of vibration applied to teeth and pain perception. From this base he sought to produce a rotary instrument with a frequency above the "discomfort level". By 1949, whilst transforming the Dunedin Dental School, Sir John had gained local support leading to the construction (and patenting) of a high speed air turbine handpiece little different from those of today. Details of this astonishing development were published locally and are summarised in a British Dental Journal article (Br Dent J1974;  136: 469–472), which included the 1949 patent drawing (left).

Sir John will be remembered with affection by all those he supported professionally but he is owed as great a debt of gratitude by all those who have unknowingly benefited from his pioneering work with the high speed drill.

Sir John's wife, Enid predeceased him and he is survived by his four children.

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