Past Lives: Pioneering dentist Lilian Lindsay in London
The accomplishments of Britain’s first female dentist are commemorated by a blue plaque, which also had to overcome adversity of a different kind.
When Lilian Murray – as she then was – applied to the school of the National Dental Hospital in 1892, the dean would not allow her to enter the building in case her presence distracted the male students. Instead she was interviewed on the pavement as he leaned out of a window.
After such a frosty reception, it’s perhaps not surprising that Lilian failed to gain admission to the school. Undeterred, she opted instead to study at the Edinburgh Dental Hospital and School, where attitudes were somewhat more enlightened. From there, she graduated with honours in 1895, becoming the first qualified British female dentist. She set up in practice in London and then, on her marriage in 1905 to fellow dentist Robert Lindsay, with her husband in Edinburgh.
In 1920 the Lindsays moved to London, to a flat above the British Dental Association headquarters at 23 Russell Square, and it remained their home for 15 years. An experienced practice dentist, Lilian focused on research from that point on, writing over 60 publications exploring the history of dentistry, including A Short History of Dentistry (1933). She also developed the Association’s dental library from 360 books to 10,000, and collected objects that became the foundation of its museum.
Lilian Lindsay’s achievement as a female pioneer was recognised by a blue plaque in 2013 at 3 Hungerford Road, Islington, where she spent her formative years. But just four years later, we found out that the house had been reduced to rubble in the course of a redevelopment project that seems to have gone badly awry.
Thankfully, the plaque survived and was conserved by English Heritage. Our plaques mark ‘original’ buildings, where the person actually lived or worked, and fortunately research showed that an alternative building survived in the shape of the aforementioned 23 Russell Square.
Lilian’s determination to succeed as a dentist is rather neatly echoed by the dogged survival of her plaque, against a rather different kind of adversity. It is now on its new home, inspiring and intriguing a new public about this remarkable woman.
Words by Cathy Power and Howard Spencer
Illustration by Harry Tennant