University of Alberta Library is celebrating the new Geoffrey & Robyn Sperber Health Sciences Library, which is anticipated to open in Fall 2023. This post is part of a series of posts that will showcase the Sperber Library over the next several months.
This blog post was written by: Craig Neaves, University of Alberta Museums Collections Assistant / Summer Student
To appreciate the significance of the new exhibition space for the Dentistry Museum Collection in the highly anticipated Geoffrey and Robyn Sperber Health Sciences Library, it’s important to first take a look at the history of dentistry at the University of Alberta and how the collection came to be. As Canadian author and dentist D.W. Gullet once wrote, “It is impossible to comprehend the present, much less guess at the future, without knowledge of the past”1. And while it’s a past that goes deep enough for a root canal, for now, it might be better just to fill you in with a brief summary of the past 106 years.
It would be futile to talk about the beginning of the School of Dentistry without first mentioning Dr. Harry E. Bulyea. On top of being a mountaineer and an artist, Dr. Bulyea was fundamental in establishing Dentistry at the U of A as a respectable and legitimate program2. When he joined as an instructor soon after the program began in 1917, he had never taught before – and besides, there were no dental textbooks, models, or instruments to teach with. Despite the lack of resources, a surprising amount was achieved through innovation, and Dr. Bulyea became Director of the Dentistry Department within two years. Throughout the 20th century, the School of Dentistry saw a series of enhancements, such as the opening of new clinics, establishing the School of Dental Hygiene, and continuously bringing in cutting-edge technologies3.
Just as it would be foolish to talk about the beginning of Dentistry at the U of A without Dr. Bulyea, it would be equally irresponsible to discuss the Dentistry Collection without introducing Dr. Geoffrey Sperber.
Originally from South Africa, Dr. Sperber became a Faculty of Dentistry professor at the U of A in 1961 and dedicated his entire career to the institution4. He saw the importance of a historical dentistry collection and began acquiring a wide variety of objects to include in it, with the hope that it would find use as a teaching resource. In a 1974 interview, while showcasing some unique items from the collection, Dr. Sperber said, “We do hope eventually to be able to put most of our materials on display … to remind the public of what dentistry once was like, and no longer is, and preserve our heritage in that way.”5 Dr. Sperber served as curator of the collection for 35 years. Although he retired in 1996, he remains heavily involved in the field of dentistry and the U of A to this day.6
Currently, the Dentistry Museum Collection houses nearly 2,000 objects, including hand-held dental instruments, molds, and models, many of them created by Dr. Harry Bulyea himself. Along with dental chairs, cabinets, kits, and a series of dentures beginning from 1815, the collection contains everything from amalgomators to vitalometers. All of these objects make it an invaluable resource that highlights the rich evolution of Dentistry at the U of A.
So why should you be excited about the new exhibition space for the Dentistry Museum Collection? Though the collection is over 100 years old now and one of the first three of its kind in Canada, this is an opportunity that allows it to shine like never before.7 This space will create a focal point for the new Sperber Library by encouraging interaction with a variety of fascinating museum objects. Anyone who visits will be able to learn about the history of technological advances in Dentistry at the U of A, the boundaries that were pushed, and the legacies of the pioneers who brought these changes about. Furthermore, the opening of the exhibit space is a testament to the collaboration and dedication of several departments and faculties across our campus.
Almost 50 years after the 1974 interview, when asked again about the collection, Dr. Sperber echoed the same sentiment as before, stating, “I think any educated person needs to have a little background of where they came from before they can know where they’re going.”8 It is safe to say the new exhibit space for the Dentistry Museum Collection provides an opportunity for just that, ensuring a bright future for its objects while simultaneously preserving the past.
To learn more about the objects within the Dentistry Museum Collection, visit the University of Alberta Museum Search Site.
- “A Proud Tradition,” University of Alberta Alumni Association History Trails, Accessed on May 31, 2023, https://sites.ualberta.ca/ALUMNI/history/faculties/92auttradtion.htm.
- Taylor Lambert, Roots: Extracted Tales from a Century of Dentistry at the University of Alberta, 43–45. University of Alberta, 2017.
- “History,” School of Dentistry, Accessed on May 31, 2023, https://www.ualberta.ca/school-of-dentistry/about-us/history.html.
- “Who Are Geoffery and Robyn Sperber?” Library News, April 20, 2023, https://news.library.ualberta.ca/blog/2023/04/20/who-are-geoffrey-and-robyn-sperber/.
- “In Touch with U: Dental Museum” University of Alberta, Accessed May 31, 2023, https://ualberta.aviaryplatform.com/collections/1759/collection_resources/57776/file/131600.
- Madeleine Cummings, “Retired dentistry professor helps fund University of Alberta’s new health sciences library,” CBC, November 6, 2020, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/edmonton/retired-dentistry-professor-donates-university-of-alberta-1.5789997.
- “Recalling the Roots of Dentistry.” School of Dentistry, April 19, 2012. https://www.ualberta.ca/school-of-dentistry/about-us/dentistrynews/2012/april/dentalmuseum.html.
- “Historic gift to new library will spark research and learning across health sciences,” Education News Canada, November 6, 2020, https://educationnewscanada.com/article/education/region/alberta/30/864630/university-of-albertanovember-6-2020-historic-gift-to-new-library-will-spark-research-and-learning-across-health-sciences.html.
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