John J. Andrew (1858 - 1927)

Father of the Belfast Dental School
and Microscopist

Peter B. Paisley, Sydney, Australia





Image right: From the British Dental Journal:  JJ Andrew, taken at the annual general meeting in Belfast at the start of his presidential year.


Dentistry is a specialty, with sub-specialties. World wide, few can afford it: in the context of general anatomy, its range is small. It hardly springs to mind as central to mainstream endeavour. In the 19th and early 20th centuries however it ranged through many burgeoning fields – microbiology, microscopy, chemistry, anaesthetics, histology, anthropology, radiology, and more. Its forensic fame spread beyond the courts to fiction and the cinema: a spectacular real example was arrest in 1909 at the Argentine border, for robbery and murder, of the German consul to Chile - dental evidence proved he faked his death, substituting an innocent victim’s body (the hapless janitor). And it was essentially dental evidence which debunked the notorious Piltdown man forgery. In February 1919 a German spy was shot, who concealed microphotographic data in a tooth crown. Less sensationally, in the later nineteenth century it was dentists, as much as anyone, who worked at the frontiers of microscopical research.

The Belfast dentist J. J. Andrew, active in clinical practice and many academic fields throughout his working life, keenly promoted microscopy in dental teaching and research. The man and his work now seem forgotten: the earliest published history (Stoy, 1951) of the Queen’s University Belfast Dental School, omits any mention of him. Strange - it was Andrew’s plans for such a school which stimulated its foundation in 1919. I do not much discuss university and professional politics, but Andrew espoused both. He joined the British Dental Association in 1884, remaining a highly active member until his death. An Irish branch was inaugurated in 1887: Andrew became its president in 1899, and was elected president of the general Association in 1908. At general meetings he often presented slides, and he became chairman of the Association’s microscopical section in 1899, when he addressed members at length on the importance of bacteriology. Already in 1892 he had demonstrated sectioning and mounting of both calcified and decalcified hard tissue specimens, at the Association’s Manchester meeting.

Born in 1858 in Tillicoultry, Scotland, where his father was minister of the evangelical church, his vocational education was in Dundee (then a college of St. Andrew’s University) and London, at the Royal Dental and Middlesex hospitals, excelling as a student with a strong interest in histology. He qualified in 1882, and moved to Belfast to commence private dental practice.

His first Belfast residence at 2 Belgravia St. lay within easy walking distance of Charles Elcock’s house at 10 Dunluce Avenue: of Elcock’s foraminifera mounts, Bracegirdle says they “are of a quality which has never been exceeded, and rarely equalled”. Later, Andrew moved to a splendid house at 23 University Square, some two minutes’ walk from Queen’s College (later University) anatomy department, and a like distance from the Belfast Field Naturalists’ Club’s president (William Gray) in Mount Charles. The Students’ Union building – ideal in size and configuration for an international conference – lay directly opposite his residence, and he secured its use for the Dental Association general meeting in Belfast, which enjoyed resounding success under his presidency. Andrew took his seat as president “amidst great cheering”. Scientific excellence was combined with touches of local colour, for instance presentation to Association dignitaries of silver potato rings, and Andrew led an excursion to the Giant’s Causeway. He also led a visit to The Harland & Wolff shipyard (not an easy achievement, for security reasons) where members witnessed early construction of RMS Titanic. Replying to the loyal toast at the annual dinner, Sir Thomas Andrews, privy councillor of Ireland and father of the Titanic's naval architect, said of the new Dental Association president, "there was no man more respected in Belfast".

Both Elcock and Andrew were members of the Field Club, as was W. A. Firth, already known for diatom mounts. I found no record of foraminifera mounts by Andrew, but probably he made some, since Ulster is a rich source of such material, both fossil and living. Like many, he made fern mounts, presenting some to the Club. In 1965, the Irish Naturalists' Journal (vol.15, p.349) noted that in 1927 there was a bequest of over 100 Andrew diatom slides.  I assume this came from his son, or his widow, and was to the Belfast Field Naturalists' Club.  The details, unfortunately, are unknown.  It may have been a collection of his own mounts, but if it was mixed, then slides by W.A. Firth and Andrew's fellow dentist Gatrell were likely inclusions. Diatoms featured prominently in toothpaste manufacture: Andrew made enough diatom mounts to advertise some as exchange offers in the April 1884 Science Gossip (p.96). In the same edition (p.91) there is a query asking for the best mounting medium for hard tissues, “one in which they will not change, and.…their minute structure will not be lost….that is lacunal canaliculi and dentinal tubules, &c”. This is signed “JJA”, and I think can only have come from him. It shows an early concern for lasting mounts, such as those destined for teaching purposes. Glycerine jelly, the “JJA” writer finds, is superior to balsam in this respect (despite tending to leach a little lime salt from dental sections). This certainly matches my Andrew slides, several of which use glycerine jelly. Teeth obviously were his main focus, particularly their developmental and comparative microanatomy (he served at the Children’s Dental Hospital and the school dental programme). Some of his slides of developing teeth are shown below.

Early Belfast slides: Andrew was still mostly using Canada Balsam for mounting, and clearly had not received a satisfactory answer
to his 1884 Science Gossip query on alternative mountant

A man of many parts, he was a keen marksman, competing annually at the Bisley rifle competition: I found no record of overseas safaris, and while it is tempting to think he shot his own specimens, the slides shown here are the probable results of services rendered to the Belfast zoo. His want entries in Science Gossip exchange columns were as often for a wide range of literary material as for specimens or slides, in contrast to his slide-making colleague S.M. Malcolmson, who usually sought slide exchanges.

Wide ranging comparative dental microanatomy.

Bigger game, whose provenance is probably the Belfast zoo.  Even a crack rifle marksman like Andrew seems unlikely to have been rash enough to stalk a wild polar bear, merely to acquire one tooth.  Symington's initials (JBS) on many slides indicate their use for teaching and research in the Queen's Anatomy Department.

By Andrew’s time, decalcification techniques were making tooth sections (as opposed to ground specimens) easier. Always one to apply new methods, his research also involved the rapidly expanding milieu of X-rays. Within months of Rontgen’s discovery of X-rays, the new technique was in the dentists’ repertoire, but its research deployment on developing teeth was surprisingly tardy. It was at Andrew’s urging that his friend Johnson Symington (Professor of Anatomy in Belfast 1893 - 1916) published the first X-ray textbook (1908) of developing teeth, a fact acknowledged by Symington, who remarked “Mr. Andrew is a very old friend of mine, and I could not refuse to do my best to oblige him” (British Dental Journal, vol.29 p.957). Andrew himself presented a paper (1908) illustrating the clinical value of X-rays.

From Andrew's 1908 paper read at the British Dental Association's Belfast meeting.

Many Andrew slides were used for teaching and research at Belfast. Their subject matter extended well beyond dentistry, as examples shown here testify.

Non dental histology slides prepared by Andrew.

More Andrew histology.  The Wellingtonia slide was made by Andrew while still a student.  He may have aquired his material from the celebrated sequoia specimens planted in 1863 at Bentmore Botanic Gardens (SW Scotland), or from Kew, while studying in London.  Whatever the case, it is of interest that the slide was acquired by Henry Pocklington, president of the Leeds Microscopical Society.

Andrew’s son John followed in his father’s footsteps, both as dentist and histologist. Some of his slides are shown below, and he also made geological mounts, a few of which survive in the Belfast museum.

Like father, like son.  Andrew junior also qualified as a dentist, and shared his father's interest in histology, with a range extending well beyond teeth.  Two of Andrew senior's many fossil slides are shown here - it is not surprising his son went on to pure geological preparations.

A fellow member of the Field Club, the physician S.M. Malcolmson, was an active member of the Postal Microscopical Society, and contributor to the anatomy department histology stock. Some slides have handwritten labels indicating that Malcolmson and Andrew collaborated.

From left to right: two Malcolmson slides; a lamprey slide with labels and handwriting of both men; frog intestine, with Malcolmson's label and Andrew's handwriting; and two slides from a foetus dissected by Malcolmson and Andrew.

Dental pathology was of paramount importance to Andrew – ever the dedicated clinician - and examples of such material are shown below.

A splendid large mount by Andrew: the surgeon, Jonathan Royston, was known to Andrew since their Middlesex Hospital days. 
And the splendidly exotic: a python with rheumatoid arthritis is surely one of the rarest subjects of histology.

In the same context, he was a strong advocate of microbiology in dentistry, and made bacterial preparations: one such has diamond inscribed initials RCSI, denoting the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. His presidential address to the British Dental Association was largely devoted to bacteriology, with details of culture techniques and slide preparation. A keen photographer, he won a silver medal in 1890 for 6 landscapes in an Ulster Amateur Photographic Society exhibition, and maintained microphotography equipment, bacterial cultures, and a darkroom in his home. Often visiting Dublin for meetings of the Irish branch of the British Dental Association, he probably donated other slides there.

A slide of urinary "microbes". It contains mixed flora. (The RCSI inscription is obscured by Andrew's label).

Andrew was a generous donor to charities and a discerning collector of porcelain, ivories and contemporary paintings for his University Square home. A keen golfer, he was closely involved in the Dental Association’s inauguration of the Irish Golf Challenge Cup. He was instrumental in founding the Royal Victoria Dental Hospital (Belfast), and his friend Symington, secretary to the Queen’s University senate, promoted his plans for a dental school: these however were not adopted until 1919, the first staff commencing lectures in 1920. Original ideas for an autonomous dental school were usurped by Thomas Walmsley – by then professor of Anatomy – who seems to have subsumed the whole project under his own aegis.

Tragedy dogged him: in 1889 his first wife Hettie died young in Crawfordsburn hospital (probably of eclampsia) as did a prematurely born son. Illness (probably myocardial infarction) rendered him inactive for several months in 1910, and he could not attend the international dental conference in Berlin, to whose organisation he had contributed much. Highly active again by 1914, he had worked hard at helping to secure the international conference for London: scarcely had this begun when it was brutally cut short by the outbreak of war. On his premature death from a stroke in 1927, the press agreed “we have lost one of our best men”.

During Andrew’s lifetime, preparation of university teaching slides became internalised, in the hands of permanent employee technicians. Free market preparers like Amos Topping, common suppliers up to the turn of the century, were being supplanted. Firms like Biosil or Harris Biological rely heavily nowadays on schools and technical colleges for business, and in universities, the days of slide acquisition from commercial firms like Topping or Norman, or individuals like Andrew, have largely vanished. My collection represents early Belfast work by Andrew, and is almost certainly only a small fraction of his overall output. Dentistry, photography and polariscopy in his day all constantly involved chemical experiment (even asbestos was tried for filling teeth!) so that chemical slides, for instance, were a likely Andrew interest. Many old slides end in rubbish bins, and I’m fortunate to have saved my Andrew collection of some 130 slides from such a fate. I cannot end, therefore, without mention of my teacher and friend James Scott, long head of dental anatomy at Queen’s. Seeing my interest, he urged me to rescue them. Here is a link leading to Andrew himself: the celebrated Howard Mummery was Andrew’s close friend since their London days, and the British Dental Association instituted an international award for dental research, the Mummery Prize. Jimmy Scott was its first winner.

Comments to the author will be welcomed.


James Henderson Scott (1913 -1970): anatomist, poet, maverick theologian, irrepressible wit, teacher, and friend.

Footnote on Irish preparers

There is little information on Irish preparers: Andrew is an example of one who has been unknown, and most remain under documented. There are many reasons. Currently (exemplified by web sites like eBay) there seems to be no collecting interest in Ireland. Historically, Ireland lay largely outside mainstream British science – as Kinahan remarked in the first of a series of articles for Science Gossip, the natural history of its west in particular was as foreign to England as that of central Africa. Recent factors also militate against research. Old Irish newspapers are unavailable on line; a huge amount of data was lost during the war of independence and the civil war; and societies like the Belfast Field Naturalists’ Club, or its counterpart in Armagh, do not now communicate with the outside world. Andrew is a rare example where extensive research (at a distance, anyway) is not hopeless, due largely to non-Irish sources.


Science Gossip

The Journal of the British Dental Association (most of the information in this article has been gleaned from it).

B. Bracegirdle, 'Microscopical Mounts and Mounters', Quekett Microscopical Club, London, 1998.

P.J. Stoy: A History of the Queen’s University Belfast Dental School (Ulster Medical Journal, 1951).

See Brian Stevenson’s Micscape article on William Gatrell for the nexus between dentistry, diatoms and toothpaste (particularly “Sozodont”).




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