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Biographical entry Saunders, Sir Edwin (1814 - 1901)

Knight Bachelor 1883; MRCS June 28th 1839; FRCS Feb 8th 1855.

15 March 1901
Dental surgeon


The son of Simon Saunders, senior partner in the firm of Saunders & Otley, pub¬lishers and librarians, in Brook Street, Grosvenor Square. From an early age he showed great mechanical aptitude, and would have devoted himself to civil engineering, for which, however, there were no good prospects, as canal con¬struction was nearly over and railways had not yet been introduced. Between the ages of 12 and 14 he experimented in the propulsion of vessels by hydraulic power, and he invented a crane for raising great weights, and a sweeping machine for the city thoroughfares by which the refuse was left in an even line at the side of the street, similar to that in use at the present time.

Turning to dentistry as a livelihood, Saunders was articled to Mr Lemaile, a dentist in the Borough. At the end of three years he was so well grounded in dental mechanics as to feel himself qualified to give a course on elementary mechanics, anatomy, and phrenology. Frederick Tyrrell (d 1843), Surgeon to St Thomas's Hospital, happening to attend one of the lectures during the second course, was so struck by the lecturer that he invited him to apply for leave to lecture in the Medical School of St Thomas's Hospital. Permission was granted and Saunders lectured unofficially from 1887-1889, when, having become a member of the College, he was appointed Lecturer on Dental Surgery and held office until 1854. He was also dentist from 1884 to the Blenheim Street Infirmary and Free Dispensary. In conjunction with Mr Harrison and Mr Snell he opened in 1840 a small institution for the treatment of the teeth of the poor. It was the first charity of the kind and lasted about twelve years.

Saunders had always been interested in the economic value of the teeth, and at the very beginning of his practice published a small popular work under the title, Five Minutes' Advice on the Care of the Teeth (16mo, London, 1837), setting out the principles of dental hygiene. Charles Wing in 1840 issued his large work on The Evils of the Factory System, in which he showed that there was great falsification in the register of the age of employed children, and that measurements of girth, weight, and
chest were useless to establish even the approximate age of children. Saunders took the matter in hand, collected extensive tables from per¬sonal observation of children between the ages of 9 and 13, and embodied his results in The Teeth a Test of Age Considered with Reference to Factory Children (8vo, London, 1837). He followed this up by papers in the London Medical Gazette in which he pointed out the characters of the teeth in the first and second dentitions.

Saunders was employed for some time in inventing prosthetic appliances for use in patients with cleft palate, and obtained an introduction to Mr Stearne, of Massachusetts, who was fitted with an unusually effective obturator. He obtained plans of the apparatus and, finding that Alexander Nasmyth (qv) was also working at the dental treatment of cleft palate, joined forces with him. In the spring of 1846 Nasmyth was suddenly incapacitated by a stroke of paralysis, and Saunders, as a friend, undertook his practice at an hour's notice at 13 George Street, Hanover Square, where he remained until he retired to Wimbledon. Saunders, having first ascertained that such an arrangement would not act prejudicially in case Nasmyth recovered, accepted the appointment of Surgeon Dentist to Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort.

In 1856 Saunders, with others, petitioned the Royal College of Surgeons of England to grant a diploma in dental surgery, and was thus amongst the first to maintain that dentistry was a part of medicine and to attempt to make it a profession. It was not until Sept 8th, 1859, that the College obtained powers to examine candidates and grant a diploma in the dental art.

The Odontological Society was founded in the house of Samuel Cartwright FRS in 1857 to consolidate the new profession still further. Saunders was the first Treasurer, and was President in 1864 and 1879. He was also trustee of the first dental hospital and school established in Soho Square, London, in 1859. The institution prospered, and in 1874 the hospital was opened in Leicester Square, and was handed over to the managing committee free of debt. It became affiliated to the London University as the Royal Dental Hospital of London School of Dental Surgery. Saunders rendered important services to the new hospital, which his colleagues and friends recognized by founding in the school the Saunders scholarship.

Saunders was president of the Dental Section at the International Medical Congress which met in London in 1881; in the same year he was President of the Metropolitan Counties Branch of the British Medical Association; and in 1886 he was President of the British Dental Association.

He was created a knight bachelor in 1883, being the first dentist to receive the honour of knighthood. From 1853 he occupied Fairlawn on Wimbledon Common, died there on March 15th, 1901, and was buried in Putney Vale Cemetery. He married in 1848 Marian, eldest daughter of Edmund William Burgess, with whom he celebrated his golden wedding. His photograph is in the Fellows'Album; there are also a woodcut in the Medical Circular and a lithograph by G R Black, dated 1877, at the Royal Society of Medicine.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Dict Nat Biog, sub nomine et auct ibi cit. Med Circular, 1858, iii, 843, with portrait].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England