Expert Breakfast Report for 17 March 2021: Dr Eryn Agnew, Community Relations Manager, Australian Dental Association and Prof Mike Morgan, Dean, Faculty of Dentistry

An absorbing ‘double act’ in which husband and wife describe meeting at St Margaret’s and embarking on a fascinating journey taking them to Melbourne, Hong Kong, Melbourne again, and back to Dunedin.

The story begins really when Prof Morgan - who introduced himself as Mike ‘from Waihi’ - came down to Dunedin to undertake Medical Intermediate (now First Year Health Science), being a resident at Knox College. Eryn was a resident at St Margaret’s, which in those days was a ‘ladies only’ College. Breakfast and dinner were provided by the College, but lunches were prepared by the residents themselves using the kitchens on each floor. “People from places like Knox would latch on to St Margaret’s people because they’d be able to come here for a free lunch.” There was a bit of uncertainty about where they first met which was either at a concert in Auckland in 1974, or the library of St Margaret’s in 1975, but the short walk from the University to St Margaret’s rather than the long walk to Knox for lunch certainly appealed to Mike. He was introduced to that idea by a mutual friend also doing Medical Intermediate. Eryn and Mike became friends here, and the friendship blossomed into a deeper relationship as time went on.

In his second year, Mike started Dentistry: “It was a rather brutal course in those days. Some of our teachers were unnecessarily harsh in my view.” Mike resolved that, should he ever be in a teaching position, he wanted to have a more gentle, kinder approach, though “I may have lapsed occasionally.” After completing Dentistry, while waiting for Eryn to finish her course, he gratefully accepted a post as a junior lecturer in Dentistry teaching students just one year behind him. “They were teaching me as much as I was teaching them - I was not a good student, I have to say.” They got married on Mike’s graduation and when Eryn was entering final year.

Meanwhile, Eryn had also gone through Medical Intermediate, but “I didn’t make it to Med. School”, and she embarked on a BSc. As she talked to people who were doing Dentistry, including Mike who “came from a long line of dental people”, Eryn became very interested in Dentistry as a career. Switching from a BSc to Dentistry put her a year behind Mike, as mentioned earlier, and during that period Eryn developed a particular interest in periodontal health and disease. It was the first time there had been more than 7 or 8 women in the class, which had 29 women in a class of 60, necessitating new gowns being made suitable for women, new toilets built, and so on. The best part, perhaps, was that it felt normal to be a woman student, roughly in the same proportion as women in the community at large.

During vacations as undergraduates they had gone back to their home towns, Mike to Waihi, where he earned money in various ways from baling hay to assembling TV sets. Eryn, home in Auckland for the vacations, spotted an advert on the student noticeboard which led to a rather more esoteric activity. Auckland Medical School had only recently started, and were building up their Anatomy Museum from scratch. While they had Medical students doing much of this work, head and neck anatomy only came in to the Medical course late on, whereas Eryn had already done that. The upshot is that there are still a couple of examples of her work on display in the Auckland Anatomy Museum. Eryn also had a part-time waitressing job, so would go from her dissecting work to being a waitress after somewhat ineffective attempts to remove the smell of formalin from her hands. She graphically demonstrated handing over a plate of food to a customer, her hands still smelling faintly of formalin . . . .

Uncertain about what do do at this stage, they went to Melbourne, partly on the suggestion of a friend who had just taken a post there, and partly because they had other friends who had lived there and liked it. Mike said, “I can still remember getting off the aeroplane carrying the sewing machine across the tarmac” - with most of their belongings following packed in tea chests on a ship, arriving some time after they did.

The Sewing Machine that Crossed the Tarmac — Image by: John Cross

Here for the first time Eryn found herself at a disadvantage, partly because of her gender, partly because she no longer had the supportive networks around her consisting of school and university friends. She managed to get some work, consisting of three or four part-time jobs in different parts of the city. Meanwhile Mike was also working in private practice but they both felt that neither really wanted to be in that sort of work permanently.

Eryn landed a part time job demonstrating in a pre-clinical job in a laboratory at the Melbourne Dental School which suited her better, and following chats with the friend who had first suggested Melbourne, Mike began a three year postgraduate course in paediatric dentistry, working half-time at the hospital and half-time as a post-graduate student. A year later, Eryn also started on a Master's course. After completing that course, the question of ‘what next?’’ arose again.

As an aside at this point, Mike mentioned the feelings of guilt that developed as he got older about being educated, at very little cost in New Zealand, then promptly leaving the country when he was qualified. He also stressed that none of what they did had been part of some grand plan, but had been a matter of simply taking opportunities that offered at times when they were able to take them.

The next move came as a result of a chat with a friend (Wendell Evans, retired Head of Community Health at Sydney University and a powerful advocate of water fluoridation) who had just landed a job at the Dental School in Hong Kong. Wendell told him there was a job going in Public Health at Hong Kong, and Mike should apply. Mike’s doubts about being qualified to teach Public Health were countered by the comment that there were some weeks to go before the semester began, so he had plenty of time to learn. Mike was surprised that his application succeeded, and off they went to Hong Kong. Though Eryn still had a year to go for her Master's, postal and telephone negotiations (no e-mail in those days!) enabled her to complete the degree in Hong Kong. As some of her Melbourne work was counted towards the Hong Kong degree, completion took 16 months, and Eryn became the first person to complete an MDS at Hong Kong Dental School.

Their first child, a girl, was born while they were in Hong Kong, and they now have a one year old grandchild. When they attended a conference in Manila it was the first time the baby had encountered grass. They also encountered professional prejudice in Hong Kong, not from the local people, but from the British, one professor pointing out that Mike had a colonial degree, as though that didn’t really count. Although they could have stayed in Hong Kong, there were a few factors against. One was this ‘us and them’ attitude on the part of some British, and another was the uncertainty about the future of Hong Kong, which was about ten years away from the handover. One of the points in Hong Kong’s favour was the opportunity it gave to encounter famous dental and medical people you would not otherwise meet, including a Danish world expert on periodontology who became Eryn’s supervisor - and taught her how to write a thesis in English!

After three years, a job for Mike came up in Public Health in Melbourne, and he expressed to us the feeling of guilt partners often experience, of pressurising the other partner to start over again in the professional sense. Eryn did just that, working two days a week in a specialist practise along with tutoring some university students. Then after around a year in Melbourne they had their second daughter, and of course they had no family support network to assist with the young children. Over the following few years, she got involved in some teaching, had a day each week at the Dental Hospital, was invited to sit on the Disciplinary Panel for the Dental Board, worked as an Examiner, and became involved in vetting people from overseas who wished to become registered with the Australian Dental Council, along with setting up and running a private practice, “so there were a lot of balls going up in the air, girls!”

Grasp the Opportunities.

Eryn made the point strongly that: “You put yourself out there and take an opportunity - it doesn’t matter how small it is, there are people who will see that you are willing to take on difficult, maybe not well paid jobs, and one thing leads to another.”

Meanwhile, Mike had worked his way up at the University of Melbourne ‘enjoyed it, loved it, got involved with local politics, the Dental Council, whole lot of things - took opportunities when they came up - my advice is to do that same thing.” Mike rose through the ranks to the position of Head of the Dental School (equivalent to Dean at Otago), and after about 5 years in that position was planning to retire.

Eryn at this stage was working for the Australian Dental Association (ADA). Although planning to retire along with Mike, plans changed when COVID hit as Melbourne had gone into a 100-day lockdown with everyone working from home, so Eryn carried on with that for the duration, working from her new home in Dunedin. Going back in time to 2007, she was required to have a blood test for antibody status because she was examining for the Dental Council, and the procedure went wrong, resulting in injury to Eryn’s median nerve from which she still has some paralysis*. The damage forced her to give up her private practice. However, because Eryn had not confined herself to purely clinical work, she was able to expand in other areas. Perhaps the most interesting was at the invitation of the CEO of the ADA Legal Association to fill in for one of the four advisers, who had to take four months off for surgery. The youngest of these advisers (all male until Eryn joined them) was 72. When he returned, Eryn became the first locum for the panel, standing in when one of them was unavailable, and then a permanent position on the panel arose, to which she was appointed.

The work of this panel, while quite varied, was illustrated by a case Eryn described. A patient went to the dentist with a sore tooth, which was treated as a dying nerve, requiring a root canal procedure. Three months later, a specialist diagnosed a cracked tooth. To the patient, it appeared that the dentist cracked the tooth during the root canal procedure. There is no ACC in Australia, so the patient was looking to sue. Eryn’s job then was to explain to the patient that the differential diagnosis between a dying nerve and a cracked tooth is next to impossible, and the original problem was the cracked tooth, while the most likely cause of the symptoms was a dying nerve. Forty minutes spent with the patient explaining this prevented all the turmoil of a court case. About one third of the cases seen turn out to be dentist error, frequently through keeping inadequate records. Eryn now runs that team, currently including three women, and hopes to commute from Dunedin to Melbourne once a month when borders open again.

Mentally prepared for retirement, Mike had a phone call from Dunedin which resulted in him taking on the Deanship at Otago. One of the driving forces for this change of direction was the long-standing obligation and warm feelings Mike felt towards this University - which, he pointed out, has the best equipped dental school in the world, and the students are magnificent!

Dental School facilities second to none — Image by: John Cross


(As usual I have not been able to cover everything, stretching well beyond my usual 1,000 words on the grounds that this is two interwoven stories. Do try to attend these breakfasts if you want to hear the full story).

*In case this causes concern for anyone reading this, one of my colleagues once calculated that I had done over 10,000 venepunctures. None resulted in any injury beyond a small local bruise - John Cross.

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Posted: Tuesday March 23, 2021