Obituary: Professor S. Francis Fish

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The Independent Culture
S. FRANCIS FISH was one of the men of vision who played a part in bringing about the expansion of, and fundamental changes in, our dental schools - institutions which in the UK are integrated in various degrees with medical schools. These changes took the schools from their rather old-fashioned and creaky state before the Second World War into educational centres well able to hold their own as integral components of universities, by virtue of their research; and as centres which provide a model for small-group teaching of a profession in which manual skills play a dominant part.

An essential feature of the changes was the acquisition of frameworks of full-time, and therefore "professional", teachers who began to create research bases within their departments. The changes were led largely by individuals who had some pre-war experience of teaching, but soon a body of new enthusiastic graduates became available to help the expanding process. Francis Fish was one of those who joined the London Hospital Dental School in Whitechapel, having qualified there in 1940.

After serving in the Army Dental Corps during the war, Fish spent a few years in private practice, before joining the staff of the London Dental School in 1950 as a part-time assistant. He became attracted by full-time teaching in which the intellectual challenges of research were beginning to be an essential ingredient and, that same year, was appointed a lecturer in the Department of Dental Prosthetics, concerned with artificial substitutes for dentitions lost through disease or accident.

In 1956, Fish became Head of the Department and began to make his mark upon it, first by appointing as a member of his staff a scientist with experience in the properties of materials. This led to what became a pioneering semi-independent Department of Material Science in Dentistry.

In the clinical treatment his department was responsible for, Fish set an example in courteous handling of the wide variety of patients - the population of Whitechapel - ranging from Asian immigrants to members of university staff. He showed an awareness of the psychological aspects of denture-wearing which became a characteristic of his staff. A central theme of his teaching, which influenced all those who worked under him, was to demonstrate to clinical students the relevance to clinical problems in his field of what they had learned about anatomy and physiology in the pre-clinical period.

Indeed, Fish's emphasis on the importance of general physiology in his subject formed the starting point of an element in his research activities, which, though modest at the time, led to a funded research programme that the department is now noted for. This involves collaboration with physiologists to examine the response of the jaw muscles to the stress imposed by fitting dentures, which improve both the chewing function and the facial appearance by increasing the distance between the upper and lower jaws. Fish sowed many seeds; his interest in the special dental problems of the aged, for example, led to the establishment by his department of a two-year MSc course in gerodontics which still flourishes.

Retiring in 1977, Francis Fish and his wife, "Scottie", an accomplished pianist and teacher of music, spent the many following years in the tranquil environment of a flat in a National Trust stately home. In 1991, he published the much-admired The Story of The London Dental School, 1911-1991, and in 1996 received the Geoffrey Slack Award for contributions to the school.

The death of his wife in 1992 devastated him but he quickly recovered, determined to spend his life as far as possible as if she were still there with him; he continued the regular piano practice sessions she had instigated, endeavouring to reach the standards she had set. His devotion to her continued to be part of his life in a way that brought him pleasure rather than continuing grief. Still young at heart, a lively conversationalist, his mobility only slightly impaired and always with a sympathetic understanding of the young, he became an active, much-beloved patriarchal focus of the lives of his two daughters and their families.

Francis Fish was well-known for his meticulous use of words, both in speech and writing, Once, on the basis of his book about the Dental School, I referred to him as a historian. "Not a historian," he at once replied, "a mere chronicler."

Sidney Francis Fish, dental educationalist: born Plaistow, Essex 23 April 1912; Lecturer, Department of Dental Prosthetics, London Hospital Dental School 1950-56, Head of Department 1956-65, Professor 1965-77; married 1941 Elizabeth Scott (died 1992; two daughters); died Chippenham, Wiltshire 4 September 1998.