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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Henderson, Gilbert Dowling (1890–1977)

by R. F. Stockwell

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Gilbert Dowling Henderson (1890-1977), dentist, was born on 7 July 1890 at Hawthorn, Melbourne, third child and elder identical twin son of Victorian-born parents Edgar Henderson, architect, and his wife Mary, née O'Neill. In the 1890s the family (there were to be five surviving children) moved to Western Australia, where Gilbert's father designed their home in McCourt Street, Leederville, as well as a Catholic primary school and the first buildings for St John of God Hospital, Subiaco.

The boys were educated at the nuns' school and Christian Brothers' College, Perth. Gilbert studied dentistry in the practice of Dr Bennett and Dr Nathan and was registered by the Dental Board on 4 October 1915. He served at the training camp at Blackboy Hill during World War I. On 27 November 1918 at St Mary's Catholic Cathedral, Perth, he married Frances Josephine Dennehy, a nurse. They had five children. Beginning general dental practice, he became enthusiastically involved in the struggle of the profession to raise dentistry standards. In 1922 he was a founding member of the State branch of the Australian Dental Association, on which he served for many years.

Henderson was the first chairman of the Perth Dental Hospital in 1926 and of the board of management of the associated Western Australian College of Dental Science in 1936. He was both a clinical teacher and an administrator. In the 1930s he also represented Western Australia on the dental committee of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.

Resigning as dean of the college, Henderson began full-time duty on 27 April 1942 as captain, Australian Army Medical Corps (Dental). Described as 5 ft 5 ins (165 cm) tall, with brown hair and brown eyes, he served at the 118th General Hospital at Northam and was promoted major in October. In January 1943 he was posted to the 115th Military Hospital, Heidelberg, Victoria, where he served as a specialist, designing mechanical aids for repairing fractured facial bones, and fine prosthetic shields to restore soft tissue loss, especially for ears, noses and eyes. He was best known for building a prosthetic hand, activated by rods inserted in the arm muscles. His sensitivity to patients' morale was especially appreciated and remembered. On 26 November 1945 his appointment terminated in Perth.

Henderson practised as a specialist in oral surgery and radiology and resumed his role as dean of the dental science college (later the University of Western Australia's faculty of dental science); next year he became an original member of the advisory board to the faculty. In 1948 he was vice-president of the Perth congress of the Australian Dental Association. Appointed C.B.E. in 1950 he was also elected a fellow of dental surgery of the Royal College of Surgeons, Edinburgh, and fellow of the International College of Dentistry. At the 1964 dental congress in Perth the opening address was the 'Gilbert Henderson Oration', delivered by Professor K. J. G. Sutherland.

Particularly concerned about the dental needs of people living in remote places, Henderson taught one pastoralist's wife how to provide emergency sedative dressings for decayed teeth and a Kimberly-based police sergeant Athol Monck—later police commissioner—to extract teeth painlessly, ensuring the dental board knew and approved of his para-dental training. Henderson's was a dedicated life and many of his kindnesses were private. Regarding community service as an obligation, he served simultaneously as honorary oral surgeon to Royal Perth and Fremantle hospitals and to the Princess Margaret Hospital for Children—a heavy workload in addition to his practice.

Henderson's wife died in 1951. He retired in 1965 but did not finally leave the university faculty until April 1970. The latter established a Gilbert Henderson prize in oral surgery and conferred on him a doctorate of dental science, the first award of such a degree by the university. He died on 19 October 1977 in St John of God Hospital, Subiaco, and was buried in Karrakatta cemetery. Three sons and a daughter survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Dental Bulletin, 14, no 10, Nov 1977, p 4
  • West Australian, 25 Oct 1977, p 8
  • R. F. Stockwell papers (State Library of Western Australia)
  • B883 item WX36383 (National Archives of Australia)
  • records of the Australian Dental Association, Perth Dental Hospital, Western Australian College of Dental Science and Western Australian Dental Board
  • private information.

Citation details

R. F. Stockwell, 'Henderson, Gilbert Dowling (1890–1977)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 25 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

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