A pioneering career: Dr Peter Gregory

Posted on 6th September 2021

WA’s first paediatric dentist recently celebrated 50 years in the dental profession. He shares his story with Brooke Evans-Butler, reminiscing on a career well spent.

Dr Peter Gregory could not have imagined becoming WA’s first registered specialist paediatric dentist when he graduated from dental school, but after ten years of general practice, he was ready for a change. “After that many years in the same room, I felt I needed new challenges,” he says. “I was still only in my early 30s and I could not see myself doing it the same thing for another 30 years.” 

Luckily for the children (and parents) of Western Australia, Peter took the plunge when he was offered to study Paediatric Dentistry – completing his MDSc (WA) in Paediatric Dentistry in 1980. 

“I was trained here and even though there were no paediatric dentists in WA, I was very fortunate in that I had the support of all of the Consultants in the other specialities who were visiting dental specialists at the children’s hospital,” Peter says. 

The Consultants who helped Peter were something of a dental dream team, comprising prosthodontist Patrick Henry, oral surgeon Ted Adler, orthodontists Bill Brogan and Peter Dillon and periodontists Rob Bower and Albert Tan. 

“I would spend time with them, in their clinics and in the theatre, and they would also guide me with respect to literature reviews,” he recalls. “They were mentors and I ended up with exceptional training. Further to that, Professor Des Kailis, who was my supervisor, brought in an internationally renowned paediatric dentist from London, Professor Gerry Winter, to examine me. He did this to ensure the course I did was relevant and appropriately registerable and to also establish the fact that there was a paediatric dentist in Western Australia who had obtained the credibility of an international paediatric dentist.” 

At the end of his training, Peter sought international experience, so Princess Margaret Hospital and the Perth Dental Hospital assisted him financially to spend a year at The Northwestern University Dental School and Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago, USA which Patrick Henry was instrumental in setting up, due to his many international connections. 

“It was a tertiary hospital and everything within the state of Illinois that was rare would be referred there,” Peter recalls. “I saw some cases there that I would never see anywhere else. The experience was immeasurable.” 

The decision to study paediatric dentistry is one that Peter has never regretted. “I always had an affinity to treating children, even when I was in general practice,” he says. “I felt too that I could relate to them. Once, during my period of specialist practice, I was at a family-type function, the evening before a wedding, and a five-year-old tripped and smashed his teeth. The father and I went with the child to my surgery, and I was able to manage, just with the father helping me, to give him some sedation and remove the bits and pieces of teeth. The next day at the wedding the little child came up to me at the church and grabbed my hand.  

“The people around me were gobsmacked by the action of this little child, who was traumatised the night before with injections under the nose and the palate. For him to leave his parents, walk over and hold my hand amazed me. So, when I am asked why I decided on paediatrics – I like working with children and I think they like me.” 

As well as establishing his successful practice, Peter worked for a number of years as the Director of the Dental Department at Princess Margaret Hospital. “Being on the staff of a children’s hospital, we had a lot of on-call work,” he recalls. “I can always remember the Christmases when a child got a new bike and an hour later, he had smashed his teeth. I would think ‘I missed lunch, maybe I’ll get home in time for dinner’ and then another child would do the same thing in the afternoon.

“I would take most Christmases at the children’s hospital because I felt other members of the dental team needed to be with their families, so it was something I did as head of department.” 

Having a good rapport with the parents as well as the child patient was also something that was incredibly important as a paediatric dentist. 

“We call it the paediatric dental triangle,” he explains. “There’s the parent, the child, and the paediatric dentist – and the interaction between all of those is complex. They all have to be in sync, because if any of these three are not in sync, then the whole thing doesn’t work.” 

Despite the challenges, Peter always found the work very rewarding. “I think of all the specialities, paediatric dentistry can be the most rewarding because it’s not just a technical thing,” he explains. “Plus, being associated with a children’s hospital, you see all the dental trauma and emergencies that present, which are usually infection, post-operative haemorrhage and dental trauma. Then, of course, you have the gamut of sick children, and those with developmental problems such as cleft lip and palate. It is such a specialised area, and it gets you out of the forty hours a week in the one room.” 

In addition to the rewarding and always varied work, being able to help a child overcome fear was something Peter most enjoyed. 

“I think the most significant thing was being able to have children come in who were very anxious and being able to treat them, taking them from a negative to a positive attitude towards dentistry.” 

Over 50 years, Peter has seen many changes – one of the most significant being the ADA’s advocacy for dentists to write prescriptions. “You can imagine how many prescriptions are now written by a dentist,” he says. “Every single one of those had to go to a Medical Practitioner previously. ADA really pushed for that and it would not have happened if it were not for the ADA.” 

As well as his work at Princess Margaret Hospital and at his practice (where he saw over 20,000 patients over the years), Peter was also dedicated to teaching at the Dental School at UWA. He also gave his time to various boards and affiliated societies, serving as President of the Australian and New Zealand Society of Paediatric Dentistry, President of the Australasian Academy of Paediatric Dentistry, Examiner and Board Member for the Royal Australasian College of Dental Surgeons and Chairman of the Finance Committee of the International Association of Paediatric Dentistry at different times during his career. 

He retired from clinical practice ten years ago. After more than fifty years in the profession, he’s slowing down, enjoying life and doing things that grandparents do.  

“We have a son who lives in Melbourne with two little children, and two daughters and two grandchildren here in Perth.  I help my daughter with her two children, and I read, I exercise, and I use the computer. I don’t play golf, but I have lost a lot of weight and I feel very fit. We are a very family-orientated Greek family, so we have our Greek traditions, and I am really enjoying having the extra time. 

“I must admit, I didn’t realise just how stressful dentistry was at the time,” he adds. “I was in a stressful area where people are bringing their most prized possession, their child, to you, and often you have to tell them that their child needs a general anaesthetic.” 

Overall, he says it has been a great journey. “I guess being the first paediatric dentist – and I will always be the first paediatric dentist in WA – I feel very privileged to have been part of the dental profession, a member of the paediatric dental community and very grateful for the dental education I received at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels from the UWA Dental School.”