Today (September 25) in London History – an appointment with the dentist

Let’s get to know a remarkable Londoner you won’t have heard of – until now. Today’s his birthday. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

It’s September 25th. We’ve got an appointment with the dentist.

How’s that for an opener?

This any better?

This is a London story that juxtaposes a split second and half a century. The work – the achievement – of the split second is the essence of barbarism. The work – the achievement – of that half a century is the essence of civilisation.

The essence of civilisation, the essence of barbarism – will that pairing do as an introduction for this Today in London History podcast?

No? You want me to take another run at it? How about this? Here’s someone you never heard of before but he’s deserving of some of your attention. Deserving of some of your attention because this was a man. You see his life through the prism of Hinduism you’d be pretty confident that his was an old soul. 

An old soul who was – I’ve already tipped you off – a dentist. 

Let’s drill down. The Odontological Society was founded in 1856. It had a museum. In the latter part of the 19th century a London dental surgeon named James Frank Colyer accepted the post of honorary curator of the society’s museum. The people who asked James Colyer if he would serve as the honorary curator – it was an unpaid position – knew their man. In no time, the museum’s collection became James Colyer’s personal passion – he was its presiding genius. In the words of his biographer, “for fifty years he devoted hours of his time and energy, and much of his own money, to arranging and cataloguing the specimens.” If he hadn’t accomplished so much else you would have described the society’s museum as his life’s work. What a collection it was. It was the most complete representation of the history and diseases of teeth in the world. The work of a civilised man, it was a work of civilisation.

It was housed at the Royal College of Surgeons in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.

At 12.55 am on May 11th, 1941 a massive high explosive bomb hit the Royal College of Surgeons. In an instant thousands of irreplaceable specimens were destroyed. Barbarism did what barbarism does. Civilisation was on the receiving end.

One of Dylan Thomas’s immortal lines is “rage, rage against the dying of the light.” He sent those words forth in response to a different matter – but I think we can enlist them here. Enlist them in the service of a response to what that Nazi bomb did to James Colyer’s deeply civilised, personal passion.

But you know something, I don’t want barbarism to have the last word. I don’t want this to end with an image of that gutted building, those smoking ruins on the south side of Lincoln’s Inn Fields.

Don’t want it to end with that plaintive note of thousands of irreplaceable specimens vaporised. 

I would say the light hasn’t died if we few – just the few hundred of us – we’ll be the only ones doing so – the light won’t have died if we few remember James Colyer today. Today, September 25th, 1866, was his birthday. And a little bit of who he was and what he did – well, each of those bits of his story is a candle. And telling his story is lighting those candles. So here we go. James Frank Colyer was a Londoner. A south Londoner. He was born in Lambeth. His father was – wait for it – a dentist.

So maybe it ran in the family. Who knows?

He is said to have had exceptional abilities – one of those individuals who was born to do what he did. Natural aptitude, intellect, quick mind, responsive hands – he had it all. Just 20, he qualified as a dentist.

For good measure, he became a qualified surgeon. He studied at Charing Cross Hospital. The hospital’s moved on but the building’s very much there. It’s one of the handsomest buildings in central London. And now it’s even more handsome. It’s even more handsome for being James Colyer’s alma mater, to use that charming American expression. 

And surely this will come as no surprise, James Colyer became the Consultant dental surgeon at Charing Cross Hospital. That and other hospital appointments were in addition to his private practice. He was said to have a dynamic personality and a natural gift for public speaking. A natural gift for public speaking that was enhanced by a brilliant memory – he rarely relied upon notes in his lectures and talks. 

And then there was his scholarship. He was a prolific journalist and author. This was in addition, remember, to practising and teaching dentistry. And going to Lords to watch cricket whenever he could. There was the lifelong interest in the history of dentistry. The curatorship we already know about. But there were also much-admired books. For good measure, his textbook Dental Surgery and Pathology was the bible of dental students and practitioners alike.

The Londoner whose birthday we’re celebrating today was the leading light of his profession. And yes, there were, and rightly so, honours in his lifetime. Including his being created a knight of the British Empire in 1920 for services rendered during the war. 

This was a life well lived. I suspect that each of us would probably have at least a slightly rougher ride in the dentist’s chair were it not for James Colyer. And I defy anybody to tell me that’s not a contribution to civilisation.

And a Today in London recommendation? Well, how about the Medicine Man Exhibition at the Wellcome Collection. That toothbrush they’ve got there – that’s a connection of sorts. It’s the toothbrush of a man whose life was not well lived. By my lights at any rate. He was a Corsican artillery officer who became an Emperor. 

Nuff said?

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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