The woman who led the way: Dr Sally Joyston-Bechal

Posted on 25th February 2020

Rather than being celebrated, the first female graduate from UWA’s School of Dentistry was sidelined and unsung. It’s only today – 69 years after she graduated – that the legacy of the admired international academic and specialist in preventative dentistry, Dr Sally Joyston-Bechal, can be properly appreciated, by males and females alike. 

 In 2020, when female dentists and dental specialists are commonplace and women tend to outnumber men at the dental school, it seems strange to think that this was ever not the case. Yet, of course, it was.  

In the inaugural graduating class of UWA’s School of Dentistry in 1951, there was just one female graduate: Dr Sally Joyston-Bechal (nee Isaac). Rather tellingly, Sally was overlooked as the year’s highest-achieving student.  

“I subsequently learnt through one of the senior academic staff that, although I was technically Dux of my year, the honour was awarded to a fellow male – ‘because he needed it more, since I would marry and have a family’,” she told us, ruefully.  

Approaching 91 (“Since I turned 90 last year, I have become proud of my age, and milk it where possible,” she laughingly told us), Sally’s journey through dentistry was not without its hurdles – particularly in Western Australia.  

“I originally wished to do medicine but there was no faculty in Perth at the time, and I could not afford to go interstate.” 

Instead, Sally chose – and excelled – at dentistry at UWA, where, fortunately, “academic Staff and fellow students, including several ex-servicemen, were all very supportive 

“I only felt vulnerable when in the early years we had to share the Prosthetic Lab with hospital technicians. I used the staff room, which was shared between nurses and clerical female staff.” 

After graduation, Sally experienced financial discrimination in Western Australia, when “doing the same job, I was awarded £60 less per annum than fellow graduates who had lower academic grades”. 

In 1954, she was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to Eastman Dental Dispensary in Rochester, New York, leading to a Master of Science in 1956, working with Finn Brudevold and Basil Bibby, the fathers of fluoride in preventive dentistry, resulting in two papers published in the Journal of Dental Research under Sally’s maiden name, Isaac. 

In November 1957, Sally, along with Drs Tom Goodall and Eric Watson, presented a significant scholarly paper, supporting the fluoridation of Perth’s drinking water. 

In 1958, Sally married and moved to London. “In the UK, male and female dental graduates were treated equally, and my academic record was always taken into account,” she recalls.  

After a period in general practice and the Eastman Dental Hospital, she worked at the London Hospital Medical College Dental School (University of London) from 1963 to 1995 (gaining a PhD in 1972) and ending as Senior Lecturer and Consultant for the NHS. 

“Research encompassed the reaction between fluoride and enamel, artificial-caries production and the use of chlorhexidine in plaque control, leading to around 30-plus publications, including the textbook, Essentials of Dental Caries, jointly with Edwina Kidd.”  

Dr Sally Joyston-Bechal paved the way for women in dentistry, having a profound impact on the industry and its gender divide. It did, however, take time, as Dr Lyn Loreck explains: 

“Fast forward twenty years, from 1951 to 1971. In 1971, Holly Edwards was the only woman in the final year. There were no women final-year students in 1972. In 1973, there was one woman. In 1974 (my final year), there were three women. In 1975, there were two women, and so on.” 

Despite graduating from dentistry close to 30 years apart, Dr Meredith Arcus said that when she met Sally in London and they discussed their time at dental school, they both realised very little had changed in the male-dominated profession 

“We graduated 30 years apart, but talking to each other, it was like we’d gone through dental school at the same time,” Meredith explains.  

I started dental school in 1977, when women were considered to be keeping their hand in until they married and had children. There was only one female dental specialist in WA, Iris Alexander, and no female members of the study groups in Perth, although Sally had been a founding member of one!” 

Frustrated by the lack of equality in the profession and inspired by the study groups she’d attended at Melbourne University in 1989 – in which males and females were equally represented – Meredith founded the first women’s dental study group in Perth.   

My experience at Melbourne University prompted me to gather my girlfriends and start a study group,” she recalls. “We met at Ord St Café in 1992, had dinner, and went from there.  

“Dr Vicki Lynch suggested we name the group after the first female graduate from the degree course, who Shelley Greenway discovered to be Dr Sally Joyston-Bechal.   

In the past we were informed about the talented male dentists who’d graduated before us, but do you think we knew anything about Sally?”      

The original group included Drs Meredith Arcus, Vicki Lynch, Lesley Ellies and Lena Lejmanoski, as well as Shelley Greenway and Jenny Ball. Holly Edwards and Lyn Loreck were not founders, but were among the original participants at the meetings.   

The impact these women had on Western Australia’s dental profession should not be underestimated, as periodontist Dr Melanie McAlpine acknowledges: “Credit should be extended to the incredible women in the dental profession who have come before me and paved the way,” she says. “I’m probably in the first generation of women to benefit from the persistence and passion these women had, and still have, for the dental profession.”  

In 1994, as an admired academic and specialist in preventative dentistry in London, Sally was invited by UWA’s Dental Faculty to give the  alumni lecture. It was on this visit that she met the women involved in the study group bearing her name.  

“Sally approved of the use of her name for the group,” Lyn says. Indeed, not only was she delighted to be acknowledged in this way, but she further inspired the early founders to develop goals.  

I well remember the down-to-earth words of advice she had to offer. In fact, I have subsequently repeated her words to my children: ‘Get your postgraduate study done before you start a family.’” 

While the SJB study group no longer formally meets, the women involved still reguarly catch up. In addition, the SJB continues to offer an annual prize of $1,000 to the dental school. 

And as for Sally? Is she enjoying a quiet retirement in London? Of course not: she’s now a successful sculptor and painter of Chinese watercolours, having been the president and an active member of the Medical Arts Society since 1995. She was awarded the society’s annual prize for three-dimensional work in seven separate exhibitions, and donated a sculpture to UWA’s School of Dentistry, which now sits pride of place on the third floor, inspiring the many dental students who pass it each day.