Saying goodbye to our head of dentistry

Wednesday 4 November 2020

Eric Whaites

Eric Whaites, clinical director of dental services at Guy’s and St Thomas’, retired last week, 46 years after starting to study dentistry at Guy’s. He has dedicated nearly his entire career to the Trust.

He told us all about his time at Guy’s and St Thomas’ before he said goodbye.

Why did you want to become a dentist?

Probably for the wrong reason - my dad was a dentist! He trained at Guy’s and qualified in 1951 before setting up his practice in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Having been born and brought up in Southern Africa, I had planned to train in Johannesburg. But, as luck would have it, in 1973 the miners’ strike in England resulted in a three-day working week which meant my A level results came back too late to be accepted into a South African university. Fortunately my dad had also insisted that I apply to Guy’s Hospital Dental School, as it was then known, and the rest is history!

What roles have you had here?

Having qualified in 1978, I was appointed as a house surgeon in conservative dentistry for six months. After working in general dental practice in Horley, in 1981 I returned to Guy’s as a clinical teacher in dental radiology and conservative dentistry and I’ve been here ever since. In 1988 I was appointed senior lecturer and head of the Department of Dental Radiology – a role I held until 2010 when I was appointed clinical director of dental services at Guy’s and St Thomas’.  I count myself very lucky to have an academic/clinical career and a managerial career.

How have things changed since you first came to Guy’s?

In some ways things have not changed at all from what they were like 46 years ago. We were fortunate to be the first students trained in Guy’s Tower when the new Dental Hospital opened in 1975. We came into a brand new hospital with modern equipment in large open clinics that looked much as they do today and a world away from the old dental school dating back to 1889! Clinical facilities have been upgraded over the last 40 years, and the number of students, patients and staff within the Dental Hospital and School have increased dramatically.

How did you make your mark on dental radiology?

My most significant contribution was in getting the department recognised and accredited for specialist training by the Royal College of Radiologists in 1990. As a result Guy’s and St Thomas’ has probably trained more specialist registrars in dental and maxillofacial radiology than all of the other dental hospitals in the UK put together, and the department is known internationally for clinical and academic excellence. My textbook Essentials of Dental Radiography and Radiology, first published in 1992, is now in its sixth edition and used worldwide. I was appointed President of the British Society of Dental and Maxillofacial Radiology (2003-5) and created the European Academy of Dental and Maxillofacial Radiology in 2004 and was appointed founding President (2004-6).

What are the highlights of your time as clinical director?

It has been hugely rewarding working with the executive directors and the senior leaders of the Trust and being in a position to influence change. These included the multi-million pound project to refurbish floor 22 of Guy’s Tower to create a 40-chair Postgraduate Centre (opened by former Chief Executive Sir Ron Kerr in 2015) and refurbishing the Dental Centre at St Thomas’ for children’s dental services.

What’s next for you?

Although I’m officially retiring as a dentist, I hope to be back once a week to help manage and oversee to completion a new project which will involve transforming two derelict floors at the top of Guy’s Tower. They will become a fantastic space which can be used for rest and relaxation by staff and for meetings and events. This is very exciting because it will then free up other space within Guy’s Tower to use as a new oral medicine department which will include a one-stop mouth cancer diagnostic clinic, improving the speed of diagnosis for patients and transforming their care.

How has the COVID-19 outbreak affected dentistry?

In a word – massively! It has created a huge challenge because traditionally dentistry is an aerosol-generating profession and, like other hospitals around the world, we teach dentistry in large open clinics. We’ve changed our equipment to greatly reduce the volume of aerosols created during dental treatment and we are changing ventilation in clinics to make sure they are as safe as possible. The Dental Hospital never closed during the first wave of the pandemic - it morphed into the largest Acute Dental Hub in London and treated over 3,000 patients.  In June we converted our large undergraduate clinics into simulation clinics to ensure students could continue to develop their technical skills.

What have you enjoyed most about your role?

The interaction with my colleagues within the Dental Hospital and within the wider Trust, many of whom I would regard as my friends. I’ve particularly enjoyed working in the dental directorate management team with Angela Farmer, Samantha Salaver and Joanna Johnson.

What would you say to anyone starting a career in dentistry?

It’s a great career. Guy’s Hospital and King’s College London is the best place to train – if I didn’t believe that I wouldn’t have worked here for 40 years. The dental education and clinical training here is second to none and I’m proud to have been part of it.

Last updated: March 2022

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