Meet our Inspiring People

Published: 21 June 2015

The University of Glasgow is a place where people inspire people to change the world. This feature celebrates our vibrant community of our own inspiring people. Meet Professor John Gibson.

Have you ever asked yourself who looks after your dentist’s teeth? It’s a question we posed to John Gibson, Professor of Medicine in Relation to Dentistry and Honorary Consultant in Oral Medicine at the University of Glasgow Dental School.

“That’s a good question,” he cracks back, with a grin. “Don’t forget, we do have the advantage of being able to discern who the best dentists are around the place.  I’d better not tell you who looks after my teeth, I think. Just say they are pretty well looked after!”

Image of Professor John Gibson, Glasgow University Dental SchoolWe’re sitting in a trendy West End coffee emporium, and John is about to head to the city centre prior to another day at the Dental School and Hospital in Sauchiehall Street.  At the age of 51, he has all the appearance of a senior, office-based professional, resplendent in a smart, grey suit.  “This is my admin day, “ he explains. “No patients today.”

There’s another reason for the Savile Row elegance. Later in the day he is heading back to school….his old school, James Hamilton Academy in Kilmarnock. He’s been invited to deliver the prize-giving day lecture, a prospect that patently gives him great pleasure. “It will be a delight,” he says.

A son of Ayr, he moved briefly to Cumbernauld as a youngster, before returning to Ayrshire and settling in Kilmarnock with his parents and older brother.

Interesting job

“I grew up in a pretty socially deprived area and as a result my dental experiences as a kid were pretty bad, actually.”  Far from being deterred from dentistry, John says his interest in dentistry was sparked by his own orthodontic treatment – a result of the earlier poor care. “I had a number of years of orthodontic treatment and probably spent much more time in dental practices than most other young people.  I thought to myself, this is an interesting job.”

After school, John’s first instinct was to opt for a career in veterinary medicine: he comes from Ayrshire farming stock. “For a number of reasons I didn’t get in. For a start, I discovered I had a number of allergies with animals and that would have made my working life an absolute misery!”

Instead, he arrived at the University of Glasgow to study dentistry. After graduating he worked for a year, full time in hospital dentistry to help fund another period of study, doing medicine. John explains: “At that time, to get a consultant job and an academic job in oral medicine you needed to be doubly qualified.  That has changed a little bit, but at the time it was necessary. During my early years in medicine school in Glasgow I worked in general practice and did ‘on-call’ for oral surgery.”

Job planning

As in all areas of health care, advances in science and technology make it ‘challenging’ to balance a frenetic work schedule and case load with the need to keep abreast of a rapidly evolving profession. John says: “It’s not easy, but modern job planning for clinical academics has helped with that.  Every year we sit down with NHS managers and University managers to talk about what the next year is going to look like for us as individuals.

“So we do get time for continuous professional development.  Also specialisation and indeed ‘super-specialisation’ has helped us because we don’t need to keep up with all advances in all aspects of dentistry; but we do need to keep up with the technological advances in our own specialist areas.”

“The giftedness of some of our students is just remarkable; our current final year who are just graduating in a few weeks’ time are a profoundly gifted year…they have been just colossal.”

He is not so optimistic about the impact on oral health of these dazzling, technological breakthroughs. “Good dental health is not about technology, it’s about really simple measures. I’m talking about diet and fluoridation…those are two big issues. To beat the dental decay problem in the UK we need to go back to first principles…and that is diet, good toothbrushing with a fluoride toothpaste and fissure-sealing.”

And what of the new generations of students studying dentistry at the University of Glasgow: how do they compare to the intake from John’s generation?

“Incoming students these days have much broader exposure to life, the universe, the arts, music…they are much more complete individuals than I ever was. The educational normative these days at school is to encourage young people to get out there and seize the world, to experience whatever they can and to seize it with both hands.

“The giftedness of some of our students is just remarkable; our current final year who are just graduating in a few weeks’ time are a profoundly gifted year…they have been just colossal.”

Professionalism and ethics

And how then does John gauge the University’s own progress on its journey through its 7th century of existence? “I think we are working well.  I am, though, an ardent affirmer of devolution and whilst I think it’s great to be part of a big organisation, it’s also good for that organisation to be able to break down into smaller, manageable units.”

John’s life appears to have its own multiplicity of manageable units.  In addition to his work with the University of Glasgow, he is Chairman of Dental Protection Limited, the largest dental indemnity organisation in the world. He has a passion for professionalism and ethics in healthcare – he has co-authored two text books and published more than fifty, peer-reviewed academic papers. He is married to a General Practioner and has three, grown-up children. His home is north of Callander in Stirlingshire and comprises an 18 acre smallholding. “It is a fantastically beautiful part of the world”, he says. Weekends see John busy with maintaining woodland, sheep, chickens and recovering from the stresses of working life by drystane dyking and repairing the banks of burns.

Quick Questions:

What do you like to do when you’re not at work?
Looking after our smallholding, cycling, hill-walking and generally keeping active.
When you were a child what did you want to be?
 I was certain I was going to be a vet and spent all my childhood working on my grandfather’s farm.
 What is your favourite place in the world?
Lake Atitlan in Guatemala. It is breathtakingly beautiful. I have been to Central America three times with medical teams. My other favourite haunt is closer to home: Berneray in the Western Isles where my wife has family ties.
Is there anyone at the University who inspires you? 

There’s a group of people and also an individual.  The group are my fellow clinical academics who carry a health-care load, in both medicine and dentistry, and who contribute hugely to the wellbeing of the people of Scotland and they also successful academics with high-quality research output and high teaching load: they teach and they do life-changing research.

The individual is the University’s Chaplain, Stuart MacQuarrie. Stuart is an amazing individual and has to cope with some very difficult and distressing situations which he does with extraordinary dedication and grace.



First published: 21 June 2015

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