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Iliffe, John (1846–1914)

by Susie Ehrmann

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

John Iliffe (1846-1914), dentist, was born on 19 November 1846 at Coventry, England, son of Francis Iliffe, ribbon manufacturer, and his wife Maria, née Simmons. He was educated at Stoneygate School, Leicester. At 14 he was apprenticed to a dentist, probably in London where he attended lectures at the Dental Hospital in Soho Square. As he never used letters after his name it may be assumed that he did not obtain a formal qualification. He later recalled attending meetings of the Odontological Society in England, thus stimulating a lifelong interest in the dental reform movement.

Iliffe arrived in Melbourne with his family in 1866. He obtained work as assistant to Charles Pardoe, dental practitioner of Collins Street, and in 1871 succeeded to the practice.

From the early 1880s Iliffe was active in efforts to achieve organizational and educational reforms in the dental profession in Victoria. In February 1884 he helped to form the Odontological Society, becoming treasurer in 1884-88, president in 1888-96 and treasurer again in 1896-1914. In November 1884 the society began to work for legislation along the lines of the English Dental Act of 1878. Iliffe helped to draft the bill by which, when it eventually came into force in March 1888, a Dental Board was set up to register dentists and to formulate a curriculum for new students; Iliffe was a member from 1890 until 1914. He was also prominent in the formation in August 1889 of a Dental Association which aimed to obtain educational facilities for dentists. In September 1890 a dental hospital opened in Lonsdale Street with Iliffe as vice-president and chairman of the honorary dental staff. With the formation of the Australian College of Dentistry in June 1897, and the transfer of the hospital and college to a new location in November, he was appointed special lecturer in dental prosthetics and metallurgy.

Iliffe became editor of the Australian Journal of Dentistry in 1898. Although not a noted scientific contributor, he produced a column, 'Notes by the Way', and many thoughtful editorials on the dental reform movement in Victoria and overseas. He also published several articles on prosthetic techniques. A paper which he gave to the Odontological Society was republished as a pamphlet; it raised important questions on the future direction of dental education.

In evidence to the royal commission on the University of Melbourne in 1903, Iliffe opposed amalgamation of the dental college with the university 'at the present time', arguing that the specialized mechanical and biological skills required for dentistry could best be taught through the existing autonomous institutions of the dental hospital and college. Others did not share his views, however, and further negotiations led to an agreement in 1904 which established a faculty of dentistry.

Iliffe was a leading figure in discussions which led to the formation of a national dental organization in 1911, and was first president. At a dinner in his honour on 11 July 1913 Dr A. Burne, a leading Sydney dentist, generously acknowledged Iliffe as 'the Father of Australian Dentistry'. Yet his dominating position within the various dental organizations was frequently challenged, especially by those who felt that in dealing with matters of controversy, Iliffe was wearing too many hats. Younger dentists, academically qualified, sought to emphasize scientific and biological training over the practical and mechanical skills which Iliffe was seen to represent. Yet his remarkable tenacity and clear vision were widely recognized as helping to create an independent and respected profession in the years 1885-1910.

Iliffe died of cerebro-vascular disease on 2 August 1914 at his home in Prahran, and was buried in Melbourne general cemetery. He was survived by his wife Lavinia Cook, née Edwards, whom he had married at Collins Street Independent Church on 17 November 1897; there were no children. His extensive library was donated to the dental hospital, and his estate, valued for probate at £7839, on the death of his wife was bequeathed to the faculty of dentistry for the establishment of scholarships in his name.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Sutherland, Victoria and its Metropolis, vol 2 (Melb, 1888)
  • J. Smith (ed), Cyclopedia of Victoria, vol 1 (Melb, 1903)
  • R. W. Halliday, A History of Dentistry in New South Wales 1788 to 1945, A. O. Watson ed (Syd, 1977)
  • Royal Commission on the University of Melbourne, Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 1903, 2 (20), p 319
  • Scientific Australian, 20 Mar 1908
  • Australian Journal of Dentistry, 8 Dec 1911, 31 July 1913, 31 Aug 1914
  • Argus (Melbourne), 8 Dec 1911
  • Dental Assn minutes, 1889-1890, and Dental Board minutes, vol 1, 1890 (held at Dental Board of Victoria)
  • Odontological Society minute books, 1884-87 (Royal Dental Hospital of Melbourne Archives).

Citation details

Susie Ehrmann, 'Iliffe, John (1846–1914)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/iliffe-john-6788/text11743, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 22 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

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