Dentistry — a family tradition
Dr Peter Cowan, right, tells the story of his family, which boasts four generations of unbroken tradition in dentistry, spanning over 120 years.
It is hard to know where to begin when trying to tell the story of four generations of dentists from one family, spanning a period of over 120 years of unbroken tradition in Dublin. How a Polish man and a Russian woman met and married in Wasosz in northeastern Poland, settling first in England before finally coming to live in Ireland in the 19th century. For it was a twist of fate that the Reverend Israel Leventon, born in 1841 in Rajgrod, Poland, met and married Rosa Grymberg, who was born in Russia, eventually moving their growing family to live in Dublin – a family that included Julius Leventon, the first generation of this dental practice and my great-great uncle.1-3
With their older children, Israel and Rosa journeyed to England circa 1867, where Israel was to become Minister of the Leicester Hebrew Congregation. In 1874 they moved to Leeds, where their youngest child, Julius, was born in 1875. Julius’s sister Annie, who was born 10 years earlier, would in time marry David Cohen, who was my great-grandfather. The Leventon family finally settled in Dublin in 1880, living first on the South Circular Road and then later, in 1888, in Longwood Avenue, Portobello. During this time, Israel would become Minister of the Adelaide Road Synagogue. Israel died in 1899 and Rosa in 1905.
A developing profession
The Baltimore College of Dental Surgery in the US opened in 1839 and by 1844 there were as many as 22 dental schools. In the UK, the Licentiate in Dental Surgery (LDS) was established in 1858 and by 1874 dentists could enter this examination from any part of England, not just from London, ‘sinne curricula’. The Dental Act was established in the UK in 1878. Following this, the Council of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) petitioned the Crown for the authority to grant the LDS in Ireland, with the first dental examinations held here in 1878. The first Register of Dentists was set up in the UK in 1879. Of the initial 5,289 names, only 483 were LDS graduates and, of these, 110 were Irish. The vast majority of the initial cohort had not completed any formal examination process.4
The first dental hospital in Ireland was originally opened at 10 Beresford Place in 1876. Its aim was to provide clinical training for dental students and to supplement knowledge from the apprenticeship system heretofore used, by providing three years of training in dental mechanics and two years of teaching in anatomy, physiology, pathology, general hospital training and dental surgery. In 1884, with the dental school now in York Street, the RCSI appointed Theodore Stack as the first professor of dentistry in these islands.5 A remarkable and highly qualified man, he indicated that his intention was to establish a school in which all subjects would be taught, and which would be worthy of the reputation that Dublin had established as a centre of excellence in medical education. Prof. Stack remained in this role until 1897, and helped to oversee the expansion and movement of the Dublin Dental Hospital from York Street to its current location in Lincoln Place in 1889.
Julius Leventon studied dentistry in the dental school at its new location in Lincoln Place. He completed his studies and qualified LDSRCSI in 1896 at the age of 21. However, it was not until 1900 that his name first appeared in the Dental Register in the UK. He was now living at 11 Harrington Street in Dublin, where his dental practice almost certainly commenced. The practice continued at this address until sometime between 1906 and 1911, when Julius’s name appears in the Irish National Census as living at 19 Harcourt Street, Dublin.6,7 This house, which would become the main setting for the practice for many years to come, was previously owned by Thomas Henry Longfield, an architect who had lived his whole life in number 19.8
During these years, Julius married Kate Barnett (1902) and they had a son and a daughter. They continued to live, and Julius to practise, at 19 Harcourt Street until sometime between 1915 and 1920, when Julius and his family moved to 155 Finchley Road in north London. The Dentists Register in the UK has an entry in 1925 stating: “late Capt. Army Dental Service” – presumably Julius entered a period of service with the army and continued until his death in 1925.9
Alfred (Abe) Cowan
Julius’s sister Annie married David Cohen – Annie and David were my great-grandparents on my father’s side. One of their seven children – Alfred (born in 1889), or Abe as he was known by all – was my grandfather and Julius’ nephew. Abe was the second generation of dentists in my family. The family name of Cohen was changed to Cowan in the early 1900s by Abe and his four brothers, as seems to have been the practice at that time for the many families that had emigrated from Eastern Europe to Ireland.
Abe was awarded LDSRCSI circa 1910 and worked with Julius in the practice in Harcourt Street before Julius moved to London. Abe married Elizabeth Nurock (or Lib as she was always called) and they had two children – Adrian (my father) and Anna. They must have acquired 19 Harcourt Street when Julius and his family moved back to London, as my father was born there in August 1919.
Although I was only 13 years old when my grandfather died, I still have many fond memories of him, my grandmother Lib and the house in 19 Harcourt Street, which was the ‘home’ of the practice for over 60 years. His surgery was a vast room at the front of the house overlooking Harcourt Street with tall windows allowing a lot of natural light. He had the most modern dental chair of its time, which could be pumped upwards by foot to raise it or, by pressing a lever, lowered back down to normal again. A similar chair sits in the front hall of the RCSI as a memory of the first dental school in Ireland – a school that was almost 100 years old when it eventually closed in 1976. The headrests and arm-pieces were adjustable and it was possible to tilt the chair backwards to improve vision. The dental light was a very large rectangular structure – quite different from what is commonly used today. There was a ceramic spittoon to the left of the chair built into the unit and a belt-driven conventional drill. It wasn’t until the 1950s that the high-speed drill, driven by compressed air, was developed in New Zealand by John Patrick Walsh.
I remember as a child playing with the seat he used to sit on during surgery – if it was tilted backwards, it made a great steering wheel! I recall that the X-ray machine was an enormous black structure in the room – it seemed very foreboding. In those days, amalgam would have been mixed with a pestle and mortar, the resulting mass put into a piece of gauze, and the mercury squeezed out by dentist or assistant before the filling was placed in the tooth. Face masks and gloves would have been most unusual.
In the garden of number 19 was a large shed-like building, which housed the dental laboratory. I would spend many hours there as a child when visiting my grandparents, carefully moulding wax under the strict supervision of the dental technician, Tom Petherick, who wasn’t much older than me as he trained with the senior man. It would have been very unusual to have a dental technician on site in any dental practice of that time, although I suspect the laboratory only started up when my father entered the practice in the late 1940s and 50s.
My grandfather continued to build up a strong and profitable general practice over the years. Of historical interest was the fact that one of his patients happened to be Douglas Hyde, the first President of Ireland, whose signature is noted on the practice headed notepaper just before he finished his term of office.
My grandfather died of leukaemia in February 1968 and I always wondered if it was caused by exposure to radiation over the many years he was working. In those days, radiation exposure was not well understood, regulation was almost non-existent and the scatter from the X-ray machines of the day would have been much greater than today. As well as that, dentists often held the X-ray film for the patient during the exposure, increasing the potential risk. My grandmother Lib died in Dublin only a few years later in 1971.
My father was born in August 1919 in Harcourt Street. Although he didn’t know it, dentistry must have been in his genes and he would go on to become one of the most influential dentists of his time, both nationally and internationally.
Adrian (or Eddy as he was called) entered Trinity College in 1936 and qualified in dentistry in 1941 and in medicine in 1943, marrying my mother Phyllis in the midst of his studies in 1942. Prof. Rodney Dockrell noted in his obituary for my father10 that he “almost absent-mindedly collected any loose prizes” along the way! He entered into dental practice with my grandfather at 19 Harcourt Street, rapidly building up a practice of patients who held him in high esteem, and a large body of colleagues who respected him throughout his life.
It is hard to know how he found the time to build up a busy practice, work and obtain the FDSRCSEng in 1950 (one of the first dentists in Ireland to do so), as well as starting the clinical dental research, largely into local anaesthesia, which led to a steady stream of publications, films, lectures, seminars, demonstrations, appointments to medical teaching hospitals, and service to learned societies. In addition, he was a part-time teacher and lecturer in the Dublin Dental Hospital and an examiner in the RCSI from 1951-1963.
When the RCSI established the Faculty of Dentistry in 1963, he was a founding Fellow and became its second Dean from 1966-69 – a position of which he was extremely proud. Indeed, the current position of the Fellowship owes much of its status to his unyielding work to ensure that standards were not only set high but steadily improved year on year.
He built up an international career, which contributed greatly to the current international regard for Irish dentistry. He was elected to Fellowship of both the American College of Dentists and the International College of Dentists, Membership of the Pierre Fauchard Academy, of the American Dental Association, and to the List of Honour of the Federation Dentaire Internationale (FDI) – the first Irishman to be so honoured. He Chaired the FDI’s Commission on Dental Education, and in 1977 he was elected President of the Irish Dental Association to his great delight.
But it was his clinical practice that was the mainstay of his professional life. In 1969, after my grandfather passed away, the practice was moved from Harcourt Street to Merrion Road in Dublin – our family home and where I was born. My father constructed a superb, purpose-built, state-of-the-art facility onto the back of our house. It was from here that he continued to work until he retired in 1987.
He was an extremely skilful clinician and worked in what would now be considered a specialist restorative practice providing the highest quality periodontal and prosthodontic treatments of his time. Intermixed with all of these aspects of his professional life, he also carried out minor oral surgery lists in a number of hospitals on a weekly basis. Towards the end of his career, I was very fortunate to work alongside him in theatre when we would do lists of third molar surgery under general anaesthesia together. My abiding memory of him professionally was his gentle and immaculate handling of tissue – something that cannot be learnt from a book. For this I will always be grateful and hope that I have passed on some of these traits to my own students over the years.
If all of this is not remarkable enough, as a father, he was simply unique both to me and my three siblings. We were blessed to have two loving and caring parents who complimented each other – one of my sisters commented that they were two sides of the same coin – my father wise and gentle, my mother strong and vibrant!
One of my father’s students, David Harris, married my sister Pam, who is an artist. My other sister Gilly (who sadly died in 2012) was also an artist and married a doctor, while my brother David had a long career as an airline pilot. It seems the dental genes passed on to me!
I was born in June 1955 in Merrion Road in Dublin – the youngest of four children. Growing up in an Orthodox Jewish household was both fascinating and beneficial in many ways – one of which was that as children, we were able to take both the Jewish holidays and the regular Christian holidays during the school year! I was also lucky to have grown up in the fabulous 1960s when everything in the world began to change – music, culture, fashion, politics and space travel, to name but a few. I suspect that my love of music came both from my Semitic background in general and my mother in particular, who was a gifted musician when she was younger. Of course, growing up in the 60s opened up a whole new style of musical genres with the music of the Beatles, the Stones, Dylan, Donovan, David Bowie, Pink Floyd and too many more to mention here. In my teens and early 20s I played the drums (badly) in a rock band, and if I hadn’t started my career in dentistry, I would probably have dabbled in the music world, most likely to no avail!
My other great passion was tennis and from the age of four, I have played this great game competitively throughout my life, meeting and making many of my closest friends along the way. Indeed it was on a tennis court by complete chance that I was lucky enough to meet my now wife Siobhan. We married in 1991 and have three wonderful children – Josh, Lia and Ben – all of whom have chosen very different but successful career pathways! It seems the dental line will stop with me, although my nephew Michael Freedman (who worked in the practice for a few years after he qualified) will to an extent continue it, albeit within his own specialist practice.
Dentistry, however, was always in my blood and in my psyche. My father had a huge influence on me to this end, although never a demanding one. I was a keen observer of his professional life as I grew up, how he managed to juggle this with our family life, and this led me to the conclusion that there was only one career for me. I remember how proud I was of him when he and my mother were dressed for the RCSI Faculty dinners when he was Dean – all of these factors influenced my younger self and I have never regretted those choices for one second.
I graduated from Trinity College Dublin in 1978 and, having completed Primary Fellowship and a year as a houseman in the Dublin Dental Hospital (DDH as it was then), moved to work in London for a year before returning to Dublin to join the practice in 1980 and work part-time in the DDH as an SHO and later Registrar in Oral Surgery. I completed FDSRCSEdin in 1981 and I was one of the first to complete the new specialist FFDRCSIrel in Restorative Dentistry in 1984.
I always enjoyed teaching and continued this on a part-time basis in the DDH until 1991, but during this period I also became involved in the Faculty of Dentistry, RCSI in 1987 – joining the Board as Hon. Sec. Although my father had retired from the practice in 1987, there was still much to learn from him about committees and college life in RCSI, for which I was very grateful. I was elected Vice-Dean and then Dean of the Faculty of Dentistry (2001-2004) – the singular honour of my professional life. To this day, I believe that in the College’s illustrious history of over 200 years, we were the first father and son to both be elected Dean of a Faculty – something of which I am very proud. Following my Deanship, I spent three years as Director of Dental Affairs, RCSI, before becoming Chief Executive Officer of the Faculty of Dentistry from 2007-2018. Over the years in RCSI, I was fortunate to have been part of strong team that firmly established the Faculty’s role in postgraduate dental education both at home in Ireland and internationally, chiefly in the Middle East, North Africa, Sweden and the USA. These roles in the College afforded me the opportunity to work throughout my professional life in a way that combined my love of clinical practice with postgraduate teaching and education, both of which I still enjoy to this day.
Although I have always regarded the RCSI as my academic home, my clinical home has always been my practice. Having developed a love for both oral surgery and restorative dentistry early on in my career, the practice has allowed me to continue to build on the work of the previous generations. In 2004, I moved the practice from Merrion Road to Pembroke Road in Dublin, where I am currently practising. I am most fortunate to have a very loyal group of patients who have continued to attend my surgery over the years. There are still a very small few who were patients of my grandfather and a greater number who were patients of my father, and all speak of them both in glowing terms! I can certainly recognise my father’s work in patients’ mouths as he had a particular style of carving his amalgam fillings or his crown or gold inlay restorations, many of which are still going strong 40-50 years later!
Dentistry has moved forward in leaps and bounds over the past 120 years from the days of minimal local anaesthesia to today’s world of painless dentistry – where technology allows us to place tooth-coloured bonded resin fillings and all-ceramic crowns. Where implant-supported restorations for missing teeth are now the norm instead of removable dentures, and where autogenous or synthetic bone materials are now commonly utilised to supplement deficient areas of the alveolus to improve outcomes. Where surgical manipulation of the jaws to correct deformity is now not only possible but routine in some instances. What would my great-great uncle Julius have made of these wonderful advances if he were alive today? I have no doubt he would have been proud to have been the founder and a part of four generations of unbroken tradition in dentistry in Dublin, spanning over 120 years and counting. I know I am very lucky to have been born at the right time and in the right place to be able to have played a small part in carrying on the successful practice of this unique group of men.
- Crivon, Q., Hatchik, K. Leventon family reunion Dublin. Index and family tree showing descendants of Israel and Rosa Leventon, 2002.
- Richards, A. Asher Leventon – A Biography. 2018.
- Berman, H., Zlotover, M. Rachel and William Nurock – extracts from The Zlotover story. 1966, Chapters 1-8.
- Lee, J.B. The Evolution of a Profession and of its Dental School in Dublin. 1992.
- Kearns, G.J. A strong tradition of dentistry. JIDA Dec 2013/Jan 2014 edition.
- Census of Ireland 1901.
- Census of Ireland 1911.
- Extracts from a Dictionary of Irish Architects 1720-1940.
- British Dental Association Museum Services.
- Dockrell, R.B. Obituary of Dr Adrian William David Cowan. The Irish Times, November 6, 1996.
Have you a story of interest?
The Irish Dental Association will be celebrating its centenary in 2023 and as part of its programme it has commissioned Dr Eoin Kinsella to research and write a comprehensive history of the Association for publication in early 2023. The history will span the entire century of the IDA’s existence.
Eoin is anxious to hear from members of the Association, past and present, who have material in their possession that might shed some light on its past. Can you help? Do you have old photos of IDA events, or documents relating to the Association’s activities, its policies or its social events, that you would be willing to share with Eoin? If so, he would be delighted to hear from you. You can reach him by emailing email@example.com.