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James McCulloch and the Dental Board

James McCulloch (or Jim as everyone knew him) was born in Scotland in 1901 to James McCulloch and Agnes Sneddon. When Jim was three years old, the family migrated to Kalgoorlie in Western Australia where his two of his uncles had migrated to some years previously.

Jim left school at 13 and by 24 he was working in Busselton in the south west of Western Australia as a business manager for a dentist James Matheson.  His daughter Judith recollects her father telling her that he “was keeping the appointment books and the office side of running the business”. While he was doing this he was effectively apprenticed to Matheson where “by watching the dentists do their work, he learnt to do dentistry himself. At that time there were no university qualifications needed … so he learnt dentistry on the job as an apprentice.“

Jim and Mabel Balding on their wedding day 21 August 1943

Jim and Mabel Balding on their wedding day 21 August 1943

By the early 1930’s Jim was in Perth working with a dentist in Perth called Richard Oldfield. One of Judith’s questions about her father was that she knew at some point he had been arrested for illegally pulling out someone’s tooth while he was working for Oldfield. She didn’t know the details and was keen to find out more about this incident in her father’s life.


At this time there was fierce debate in the dentistry community over the regulation of dental assistants like Jim who had learned their trade on the job. In 1934, draft legislation had been proposed which would have allowed persons over the age of 21 who had been working as a dental assistant in WA for more than ten years to be registered as a dental assistant with the Dental Board and be able to undertake dental operations. Jim was involved in a lobby group called the Dental Assistants of Western Australia (DAWA) who wanted to be able to become registered dentists by training under a dentist rather than studying at university. There was much opposition to these changes from the university and existing dentists.


In March 1936 a Tony Yakovina approached Jim at his residence at Murray Street in West Perth and asked Jim to perform some dental work on him at a reduced rate. Jim told Yakovina to return the next day to his place of employment, Oldfield’s surgery on St George’s Tce in Perth.  Yakovina was a man known to police with many charges for vagrancy and dishonesty from 1929 to 1934. 

 Advertisement for Richard Oldfield's dental practice. West Australian newspaper. 

 Advertisement for Richard Oldfield's dental practice. West Australian newspaper. 

On 7 March 1936, Yakovina appeared at the dental surgery where Jim performed a tooth extraction of one of his front teeth and fitted a plate for him. Yakovina later said that Oldfield had entered the room where the extraction took place and spent the time in a workroom with the door open. Oldfield was about 7 or 8 feet away from Jim during this time. Oldfield said that he examined Jim’s report on the work after the procedure and found it to be satisfactory.


After Yakovina left the surgery, Jim was arrested by a Sergeant Harvey for performing dental operations without the correct registration. The Sergeant later told the court he had examined Yakovina’s teeth before and after the dentist visit. Harvey stated that he had asked Yakovina to visit Jim and ask him to do the work. He also gave Yakovina the money to pay Jim directly for his services. 


The Perth Police Court found Jim not guilty of the charges. The Magistrate said that the Dental Act of 1920 did not specifically state that an assistant dentist could not perform a simple operation or mechanical work in making a plate or false teeth. It further stated that Jim was not practising on his own, but was acting under the instructions of a supervising dentist.


Police Courts, The West Australian, 15 May 1936

Police Courts, The West Australian, 15 May 1936

The West Australian 29 May 1936

The West Australian 29 May 1936

The Dental Board appealed the decision to the Full Court, which heard the case in August 1936. The Full Court referred the case back to the Magistrate with a direction to convict as the court felt that the supervision by Oldfield was inadequate as reading a report and not examining the patient was not enough supervision. The Magistrate found Jim guilty as directed and he was given a warning and ordered to pay the court costs of the three court appearances. 


The West Australian 23 July 1936

The West Australian 23 July 1936

Jim continued lobbying with the DAWA and in 1939, a new bill was passed that enabled current dental assistants with four years or more experience when the legislation was passed, to sit an examination once they had ten years experience and if they passed, they would become registered dentists. 


Jim passed this examination and was one of the first dental assistants to become a registered dentist under the new scheme in 1939.  He opened up his own practice on Scarborough Beach Road which his daughter Judith fondly remembers visiting. Jim died at home aged 56 in August 1957 while he was still practising as a dentist.



Amey, Judith, interviewed by Fiona Crisp, digital recording, by phone from Perth Western Australia, 11 November 2017, in author’s possession

Kalgoorlie Miner

Register of Births, Deaths and Marriages, Western Australia

National Records of Scotland

South-Western News

The Daily News

The West Australian

Unknown photographer, James McCulloch and Mabel Balding wedding photo, 1943, personal collection of Judith Amey

Yiannakis, John N, A History of Dentistry in Western Australia: A Commemoration of the Centenary of the Australian Dental Association, Western Australia Branch 1909-2009, Perth, Western Australia, Network Books, 2009