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                                                               The History of the British Dental Association Library


                                                                                                E. Muriel Cohen, MBE, BA


After 22 years away from the BDA where I was Librarian from 1964 to 1981, it is not feasible for me to describe its present day activities but perhaps an account of the library’s origins may be of interest.


The BDA, founded in 1879, at first conducted its business in the homes of its  embers or in rented rooms in the Dental Hospital of London in Leicester Square until, in 1904, it set up its headquarters at 19 Hanover Square. It was not until just before the First World War that W.H. Dolamore and others urged that a library and reading room be provided but nothing was done until peace was restored. In 1919, 23 Russell Square was acquired as the new headquarters on a twenty year lease, with a second floor room ensuring 28 x 20 feet earmarked for a library. Dolamore became the first Chairman of the Library Committee. On the third floor was a flat for the newly appointed Dental Secretary, Robert Lindsay, and his wife Lilian who accepted the post of honorary librarian, a post she filled with grace and distinction until 1946.

Lilian Lindsay.So much has already been published about this great lady, the first woman to qualify in dentistry in Great Britain, that more might seem superfluous, but the BDA library owes so much to her 26 years as honorary librarian that a brief account seems justified. Born in 1871, she qualified LDS in Edinburgh in 1895 and practised there with her husband until Robert Lindsay became Dental Secretary and they had to move to London. From then until her retirement in 1946 she served as honorary librarian. After her husband’s death in 1930 she dedicated much time to studying, writing and lecturing on dental history. She received many honours

including a CBE in 1946, the Tomes Prize in 1945 and the Colyer Gold Medal in 1946. She was the first Wallis Lecturer, gave a Northcroft Lecture and was President of the British Society for the Study of Orthodontics and of both the Odontological and the History of Medicine Sections of the Royal Society of Medicine. In 1946 she became the first woman president of the BDA, one of only two women to hold that office. She was a remarkable but gentle lady, whom my husband Ronald knew well. She encouraged his early efforts in researching and writing on dental history and it is largely due to her influence that he persevered in producing so many contributions to the literature.


The function of the library committee in 1920 according to a proposal by J.A. Woods was “to establish and maintain a library of dental and allied literature”. Initially the books comprised 100 volumes in memory of Thomas Gaddes, a past sub-editor of the British Dental Journal, presented by his widow. These included dental, scientific and philosophical works from Gaddes’ own library and were supplemented by gifts from other members and purchases made possible by donations  nd legacies, together with a small grant from the Association for upkeep. At first only those members who could visit the library in person could use it, but a postal service initiated in 1922 extended the use of the facilities, £5 being set aside to cover the postage. Those were the days!


Lilian Lindsay regarded four categories of literature to be desirable: books of rare and historic value dealing with the origins and history of dentistry; modern dental textbooks; modern medical and surgical texts; and works of reference. Within ten years it became apparent that so much had the services of the Association expanded that new premises had to be sought and in 1935 the headquarters moved to 13 Hill Street with the library established in what had been the oakpanelled dining room with a small room leading from it which became the librarian’s office and an adjacent room as the home of the Rare Book Collection. The library was named the Robert Lindsay Library, but to honour Lilian Lindsay on her retirement her name was added to her husband’s and her portrait was placed on the wall. The luxury of the expanded accommodation was a huge benefit, in fact the shelf space and even the floor areas in Russell Square had long been exhausted and a commodious coal scuttle had held the pamphlet collection! Yet such was the growth of the library stock after the move, particularly because of the necessity of housing runs of periodicals, that during the 1950s and 1960s much of the library had to be stored in other rooms, even in the garage in the mews behind Hill Street, and it was a relief to move to 64 Wimpole Street in September 1966.


In  more recent years the primary intention of the new building was to express the fact that the BDA is the cultural centre of the dental profession, hence the library and the museum face each other on the ground floor on opposite sides of an open central courtyard. Below the library is a store for older material, partially fitted with movable shelving. The Rare Book Collection is kept in secure cupboards at one end of the upper level of the reading room. Since I left on my marriage in 1981 there has been considerable development in the adoption of modern technological methods, and sadly, in my opinion, the library’s name has been changed to the Information Centre and the Lindsay connection lost.


The Rare Book Collection


There are over 600 early dental and medical works in the collection, among them almost all the great dental classics. It is sometimes forgotten what a valuable asset this is. A steady trickle of enquiries come from libraries and individuals abroad, who have no interest in the current modern stock which is duplicated in any great dental library, but solely in these old volumes. Many of the books were acquired through the generosity of donors and by the astute purchases of Lilian Lindsay and her successors as librarians, in the early days for what now seem ludicrously low prices.


The earliest dental book in the collection is the 1536 edition of Zene Artzney, an anonymous compilation of writings of previous authors on dentistry. Charles Allen’s The Operator for the Teeth, published in 1685, was the first book on the teeth in the English language with only two copies known to be in existence, one in York Minster library, the other at the College of Dentistry of New York University, this copy having belonged to Theodor Blum. In 1687 the book was reprinted in London with a new title: Curious Observations in that difficult part of Chirurgery relating to the Teeth ... and a copy of this edition is included in the BDA library and is one of only about 14 known copies in the world.


In France dental literature developed more rapidly than elsewhere in the 18th century. Pierre Fauchard was the great author of the first true dental textbook, all three French editions of 1728, 1746 and 1786 as well as the German edition of 1733 being found in the collection. Other important French authors of the period include Bourdet, Geraudly, Bunon and Jourdain, and English 18th century authors are represented by Hurlock, Ruspini, Berdmore and Wooffendale among others. Hunter’s Natural History of the Teeth (1771) and  is A Practical Treatise on the Diseases of the Teeth (1778) are among the most important dental texts, and in the 19th century such famous authors as Fox, Robertson, Saunders, Tomes and Nasmyth are represented. Medical classics have also been acquired, many containing valuable dental material. One such is Practica ... (1504) by Alexander of Tralles. Fallopius is represented in the Paris edition of 1562 where a description of the trigeminal nerve is given, and his teacher Vesalius’s De humani corporis Fabrica (1568) is the fourth edition of one of the most important medical works ever written and certainly the most important anatomy book. The first edition (1575) of Paré’s works is of great dental historical importance, particularly because of its illustrations of dentures and dental instruments.


Other rarities of the collection include sets of two very early albeit short-lived periodicals, the British Quarterly Journal of Dental Surgery (1843) and The Forceps (1844-45).  These were the first British journals in the field of dentistry.There are also old minute books mainly relating to the history of the BDA, and a number of dental manufacturers’ catalogues from the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Association’s collection of photographs and autograph letters from members of the profession also find a home with the rare books. Knowledge of the wealth of literature in the rare book cupboards has solved many a historical query made of successive librarians.

It is therefore on the historical texts that the status of the BDA library is assessed. To appreciate the past and to learn from its lessons, taking pride in the achievements of one’s predecessors, is only just to those who have travelled the road ahead of us.




British Dental Association. The Advance of the Dental Profession: a centenary history 1880-1980. Brighton, BDA, 1979.


Cohen, R.A. Rare books in the BDA Library. British Dental Journal, (1965) 118, 280-281.


Spencer, E.M. The Robert and Lilian Lindsay Library of the British Dental Association. Unpublished paper given at the Medical Libraries Association Conference in Chicago, May 1978.

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