Pioneering oral surgeon - Willliam Donald MacLennan: vignette

Historical vignette from 'Summons' Spring 2008

ORAL surgery at the close of the Second World War was still a fledgling specialty. Dental surgeons in most UK units might be expected to remove teeth, replace dentures or perhaps advise on splints. It was to this field that a young Edinburgh surgeon returned from wartime naval service. Over the next 40 years William Donald MacLennan would contribute to the advance of oral surgery both in pioneering new techniques and in promoting education and professionalism, with the eventual establishment of the FRCS in Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery.

W D MacLennan was born in Edinburgh, his father a prominent dental practitioner in Newington. “Bill” was educated at George Watson’s College and later obtained a place in the Dental and Medical School of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, undertaking a combined diploma course in both medicine and dental surgery.

In the last stages of the Second World War he joined the Royal Navy and was posted to New York. Here he met his future wife, Milly, an accomplished young American equestrian of Olympic standard. They were married for nearly 50 years. He was later transferred to the west coast of America but, just before his arrival, Japan capitulated. Bill was awarded the “Pacific Medal”, as he was technically in the war theatre, and often boasted that the Japanese surrendered on hearing that he was coming.

On returning to Edinburgh he was appointed to the Plastic, Oral and Burns Unit of Bangour General Hospital under Mr A B Wallace, later becoming the unit’s consultant dental surgeon. In this capacity he taught students from the Edinburgh Dental School. Bill was a born teacher and produced an excellent series of lectures and residential clinical visits to the Bangour Unit, which were structured to emphasise clinical pathology and the general medical aspects of emergencies. No student went through this course without lifelong memories, both clinical and social. Many had the opportunity to visit his large Victorian villa in Eskbank where they were well fed and “watered” and treated to musical performances by Bill on his electric organ. He was a pioneering exponent of stereophonic sound to the wonder of his student visitors. He was also a happy family man – a devoted father to his two daughters, Sandra and Barbara.

Bill’s contribution to the advance of oral surgery was considerable. He pioneered mandibular osteotomies and developed the processing of surgical splints and cosmetic facial restorations in the dental laboratory. He published over 40 papers on a variety of subjects.

His influence at the Royal College of Surgeons was considerable. As Secretary to the Dental Council of the College, he negotiated the acquisition of the famous Menzies Campbell Historical Collection. His long experience in practice led him to believe that for the further evolution of oral surgery, practitioners should be encouraged to take an FRCS diploma in the specialty. The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh had previously offered an FRCS in the specialty of Dental Surgery but with the advent of the FDS in 1948 the qualification was abandoned. Bill later became Convener of the Dental Council and was the first Dean when the Faculty was created. In this last office he proposed that an FRCS in Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery be introduced. The implementation of this task fell later to his successor, Dr Lawrence Finch, but Bill was acknowledged as the catalyst, a move which completely revolutionised the status and scope of the specialty.

In 1967, with the retirement of Dr David Middleton, who ran the autonomous Oral Surgery service at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, Bill was invited to unify the regional services, including the RIE and Bangour. This he did and in 1978 he was appointed Professor to the Chair of Oral Surgery in Edinburgh University. He was also a founder member of the British Association of Oral Surgeons and was its president in 1966.

Bill was an addicted sportsman. He played rugby for the Royal Navy and later for Scotland in 1946 and 1947, earning caps against England and France, respectively. He played hockey with the students on “Field Days” and was an enthusiastic golfer. It was said that Hugh Watt, the professional at Gullane, whose advice Bill once sought, observed his swing and advised him to give up golf! A trivial matter like that would not deter Bill.

In many ways he was the “classic” surgical consultant, with his bowler hat, flower in the lapel, large car – Austin Princess or Rolls Royce – and his retinue of admiring staff. He had a very generous nature and although, like all humans, was capable of taking a dislike, Bill never at any time let that influence his duty to his specialty and his patients.

Peter R H Brown

John F Gould

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