For fifty years Dr Bernard Lester kept Mancunians smiling.
The dentist, from Prestwic h, looked after the teeth of everyone from kids in Crumpsall to celebrities on ‘Manchester’s Harley Street.’
Now, 74, Bernard is raising laughs as well – with a hilarious memoir that lifts the lid on his profession, and on how Manchester transformed during the course of his career.
‘Open Wide! Fifty Glorious Years as a Dentist’ was written by Bernard as a lockdown project, but then defied all expectations by catching the eye of a number of publishers with its blend of social history and colourful episodes from his working life.
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There’s the patient who brushed their teeth with bleach, the celebrity who sang through a procedure, and the women so happy with Bernard’s work that they sent him marriage proposals – and on one occasion, raunchy pictures.
Most of all, Bernard shines a light on the difference that dentistry can make to people’s lives, through comic and touching reminiscences – like the story of the woman who revealed her love life and marriage had been saved by him stopping her snoring, or the mother who wanted a set of full dentures made for her daughter’s wedding present.
The book, published by Pegasus, has been compared to doctor Adam Kaye’s best-seller ‘This is Going to Hurt’ – and entered for a Costa Book Award. A sequel is already in the pipeline.
Bernard, who retired from full-time work in 2020, told the Manchester Evening News: “People said I had a cat in hell’s chance of getting it published, but to my delight I ended up with four offers.
“Through lockdown I decided to write down all the stories, and remember all the people I’ve helped over the years.
“I hope someone will pick it up at the airport and just have a laugh.”
Bernard lives in Prestwich with wife Sue, 74, and has three children and two grandchildren.
As well as the ‘triumphs and disasters’ of his career, ‘Open Wide’ reveals how he set out to improve understanding of oral health – to try and smash the popular stereotype of dentists as fearsome figures.
He writes: “Who would want to be a dentist? Well, me actually. I was going to be the dentist who would change perceptions of the Dracula figure.
“You might find reason to avoid me, but I knew I would be able to inspire confidence and trust. I was going to shatter the stereotype.”
Triumphs include patients so happy they kissed him, those marriage proposals, and the touching story of how he was able to restore the confidence – and the smile – of a woman involved in a terrifying kidnap ordeal.
“I feel flattered and honoured that I’ve been able to touch so many people’s lives,” he said.
“That I have had more triumphs than disasters is so important to me as I look at the thank you cards and letters of appreciation from grateful patients.”
Bernard’s career started in 1970 when, after qualifying at Manchester Dental School, took up a position at Hobson, Bennett and White in Crumpsall, a surgery he had attended himself through childhood.
After just nine months of practice the owner, Barry Hobson, revealed he was selling up, and offered the 23-year-old Bernard the chance of owning his own surgery.
Even though he’d barely left university, Bernard took the plunge, borrowing half the money from the bank, while owner Barry let him pay the rest off over the years. Those early days would set the tone for a career defined by Bernard’s ability to build a rapport with nervous patients.
“There’s a constant palpable tension that emanates from almost every patient who enters the surgery, I can completely empathise with that.,” he writes.
“I know that with every injection for the patient there is a worry. Will it hurt? Will it numb the pain of the treatment? This anxious feeling is transmitted to the dentist, but from a different angle.
“I have always taken a more holistic approach to assessing a patient’s needs, psychologically as well as orally. Remember the mouth is an extremely sensitive area and there is an almost intimate relationship between dentist and patient.
“And that’s why a lot of them remained patients and friends for many years.”
In 1973 Bernard began practising on St John Street. The imposing street of Georgian townhouses, off Deansgate, was once known as Manchester’s Harley Street, due to the number of leading medical consultants with private rooms there.
Clients would include a famous actor, appearing at the nearby Opera House, who needed an emergency extraction and quoted Shakespeare throughout the whole procedure.
Then there was the famous singer who required a complicated crown and bridge to ensure she didn’t sing with a lisp – Bernard had to complete the procedure while her singing coach looked on, and she had to belt out songs from Jesus Christ Superstar to make sure.
The job constantly tested his ingenuity.
There was a time he had to sort out a missing filling as a woman was giving birth – she said it was ‘more painful than the labour’.
Then another patient, the wife of a wealthy businessman, had been kidnapped and beaten so badly with a baseball bat that medics thought the damage to her teeth was irreversible.
After three months of treatments, Bernard was able to restore the patient’s smile.
As he recalls in the book: “Later in the year I was wined and dined at the Midland Hotel by the two of them, and it was an absolute pleasure to see her restored and shining again.”
Bernard also shares the adorable story of a little boy whose tooth needed to be pulled out – only for it to slip out of Bernard’s finger into the inner workings of the chair. He dismantled it all just to get the tooth back for the distraught boy who wanted to leave it for the tooth fairy to get his £1.
A week later, Bernard received a card from the boy with a 50p attached – he wanted to share the money the tooth fairy had left him with his dentist.
Bernard would go on to be elected the chairman of the St John Street Medical Association, representing a host of medics across a range of fields.
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He also worked for 25 years on negligence and personal injury cases – including for a woman who cracked her tooth on a screw that had fallen out of a deep fat fryer into her chips.
In the book Bernard pays tribute to his staff – most of whom stayed with him for his entire professional life, giving his surgery a ‘family’ atmosphere.
“The patients loved us for the stability and convivial atmosphere, there was always a familiar face when they came into the surgery, and it was this bonding we had with them which set us apart,” he writes.
“None of us had moved more than a few miles from where we were born and I feel that we have all contributed significantly to the dental health of the area.”
By 2006 St John’s Street was beginning to change, with consultants leaving the area.
Bernard and his team decided it was the right time to sell their buildings, while remaining as tenants.
“They were beautiful houses but they cost a fortune to run, they were massive, massive properties, but what memories and experiences,” he says.
In 2016 Bernard finally left St John Street after 40 years to work as an associate within a corporate organisation.
Bernard, who continues to work part time on dental negligence and personal injury cases, is now hard at work on a sequel – Open Wider – which will explore in detail case studies of patients he has helped with extraordinary and unbelievable stories of their own.
Open Wide has been put forward for the Costa Book Awards and is available from Waterstones, Book Depository and all major bookshops, as well as Amazon, where a Kindle version is also available.
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