Posted on 29th July 2020
An hour chatting with Dr Edmond (Ted) Adler OAM seems to go by in a moment – at 92 years old, he is an engaging conversationalist, with many stories to tell. Probably best known as a preeminent oral surgeon and for his role as one of the pioneers in introducing titanium dental implants to Australia, he has seen huge changes in the profession over 70 years.
Although Ted did not set out to become a dentist, he had supportive parents who devoted their lives to providing their son with a good education.
“My parents were migrants from Austria,” he says. “They were desperately poor people who made a go of it. They started with nothing, establishing Adler’s Cake Shop, and any sort of penny they saved they put towards getting me an education. Their hard work allowed me to attend Hale School, where I became Dux in 1945.
“When I enrolled in university in 1946, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I went to see Professor Currie, who was the UWA Vice Chancellor at the time,” Ted recalls. “He said: ‘By the way, we’re starting a Faculty of Dentistry next week; would you be interested?’ I liked artistry and thought that through dentistry, I could undertake a professional career and be able to express my art.
“I couldn’t stand the sight of blood, so I didn’t want to do medicine,” he says, laughing. “I didn’t realise blood was involved in dentistry.”
Without realising the significance at the time, Ted became a part of WA’s dental history, being in the first graduating class of dentistry from the University of Western Australia. A few years later, he began his master’s degree to become an oral surgeon.
“When I graduated, I was rostered to take out teeth under local anaesthetic,” he recalls. “I would take out 100 teeth before lunchtime for weeks and weeks and weeks. I never stopped. If I broke a tooth, there was no one to hand it to.
“I was working with the high-profile Gilbert Henderson, an oral surgeon. He was watching me extract teeth and encouraged me to extend myself. He took me to attend fractures at Royal Perth. It was then I decided to start my master’s degree in Oral Surgery. I received the first and, at that time, only MDSC.”
As was the norm of the time, Ted travelled to the UK for postgraduate study. “At that stage, it was assumed you knew nothing in Perth, and everyone had to go overseas to learn,” Ted explains. “So, I went to the UK for the traditional year and was so far ahead of my English colleagues.
“They were still doing oral surgery with a mallet and chisel, whereas in Perth I was cutting bone with a drill, so it was a hell of a lot easier to get wisdom teeth out.
“I was pretty brash at that stage and when someone was doing a wisdom tooth, I said: ‘I really came to see the complicated stuff.’ He said: ‘If you can take out 99 wisdom teeth at the end of your life you are doing something.’ I couldn’t tell him I was already taking out more back home.”
Upon returning to Perth, Ted continued to work in maxillofacial surgery. “When I came back from the UK, Harold McComb returned that same year,” he recalls. “He was a plastic surgeon and he and I clicked and started working together in the plastic and maxillofacial unit at Royal Perth Hospital. He treated the soft tissue and I would do the hard tissue. We treated a few really complicated tumours together.
“If I wasn’t in the health profession, I was going to become a beauty specialist because I was always interested in faces and appearances,” he adds. “I still today notice faces, which was quite an advantage when I was treating faces as a maxillofacial surgeon.
“Many people would come in and say they wanted their nose done, and I would spend time explaining to them the significance of internal beauty versus external beauty and that they may think it is their nose, but if we fix that, then you find it is your ears. I spent more time telling people not to get things done than actually doing so.”
It was in 1980 that Dr Pat Henry (the first registered prosthodontist in the state) approached Ted, saying he’d heard about the application of titanium dental implants in Gothenburg. “I said, honourable oral surgeons take implants out, they don’t put them in. However, I was going to an international meeting in Dublin, so I said I would fly to Gothenburg, although I didn’t realise the cost of the airfare,” Ted laughs.
Ted was intrigued with what he saw and soon after, he and Pat travelled to Gothenburg together to observe Per-Ingvar Branemark’s work. “We arranged for Branemark to come out to Australia to do the first case in Australia and then to supervise me treating others. Pat and I ended up going to each State to demonstrate the process, and to Singapore as well.”
As a self-described “frustrated teacher”, teaching others was a rewarding process, and the technique revolutionised the replacement of teeth.
“Quite a few years later people would come up to me and say: ‘Ted, have you heard about this new system in dentistry?’ A hell of a lot of oral surgeons and dentists now use implants as the basic form of their income. Considering I did it all as a volunteer makes me roll my eyes. But it was nice to be at the sharp end of knowledge.”
There’s more to thank Ted for: the next time you sign off as “Doctor”, take a moment to consider the part he played in your use of the title. “I was a senior surgeon at Royal Perth Hospital and across the road there was a parking place for the doctors,” he recalls. “I parked there and I got a ticket – because I wasn’t a ‘doctor’, even though I was a senior surgeon at the hospital. It really got under my skin.”
In 1970, Ted put an advertisement in The West Australian announcing that “despite the sale of Padbury House, Dr Adler would still be practising at that address”. He was taken to court for misuse of the title Doctor, although no conviction was recorded.
From 1964 until the West Australian Government finally legislated for dentists to use the title “Doctor” in 1987, Ted campaigned tirelessly, even joining the Dental Board in the hope of affecting change from within.
Ted spent years as a consultant Oral Surgeon at Royal Perth Hospital, Princess Margaret Hospital for Children and Hollywood Repatriation General Hospital. He is an Honorary Life Member, Past President and founding committee member of the Dental Study Group of Western Australia, was the foundation Secretary and Treasurer of the Australia and New Zealand Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons. For a few years, he even managed to find time to edit ADAWA’s Bulletin. “I wasn’t a great editor,” he laughs. “But the people who set it up were even worse spellers than I was. I used to proofread pages in–between patients.”
In 2005, he was admitted to the Campbell-Wilson roll of honour in dentistry.
After a rich and varied career of 43 years, Ted retired. However, retirement has not meant a quiet life for Ted.
Volunteering has always been a big part of his life, and after retirement, he spent years volunteering for the Perth Chevra Kadisha, WA’s Jewish Burial Society.
“As I had done so much anatomy, dead bodies didn’t faze me, so preparing the bodies was never a problem. But you had to fill the grave yourself and by the time I was 80 I would come home with a backache, so I said there are many people younger than 80 who could do it.”
Ted then began volunteering at the University of Western Australia’s Visitor Information Centre, where he said he was fortunate to meet many interesting people.
After years of giving back, it is fitting that Ted has been awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM).
Ted’s son, radiologist Dr Brendan Adler, nominated Ted for the honour, and said he was pleasantly surprised that he received it. “We all thought he deserved it, so the family is all chuffed. We are very proud of him,” Brendan told us.
Brendan says work was always a vocation for his father. “More recently, work has become a way of earning money, but Dad was much more vocationally–driven. Working for a public hospital was a public service, because you did not get paid for it. It was a different generation.”
On the subject of his award, Ted is very humble, but says it is nice to be recognised for his work. “I have a defence medal for being a Wing Commander (he was a reservist with RAAF from 1968-1978) and was made an honorary consultant at Royal Perth and an emeritus at Royal Perth and Princess Margaret Hospital, and each time it involved a ceremony,” he says. “This will be another ceremony, although at a higher level. I am getting emails to congratulate me and what I have been answering is that it is not the be–all and end–all, but I am certainly grateful for the honour.”
No review of Ted’s life would be complete without mentioning Cynthia, his life–long partner. They celebrated their diamond anniversary six years ago and travelled to all international meetings together, so that now they can say: “Remember when…” As he always acknowledged, she was the Sergeant Major and he was the Private.
Ted describes himself as having a fulfilling and happy life. “I am a really happy person,” he says. “I have never been bored, I don’t feel lonely and I am lucky to have reasonable health. I cannot imagine myself having done anything different.”
Ted will soon be receiving his 70-year medal for continuous membership of the Australian Dental Association of Western Australia. We congratulate Ted for all his achievements.
This article first appeared in the August edition of the Western Articulator magazine.