Saffas in Uniform: Peter Galgu

Saffas in Uniform: Peter Galgut | Two-time Dentist of the Year

An extremely respected authority in the field of periodontics, Peter Galgut talks to us about his passion for dentistry, what he would change about the NHS, and whether it’s all true about ‘British teeth’

Saffas in Uniform: Peter Galgu


When did you arrive in the UK?

April 1973 as a newly qualified dentist.

Do you specialise in any particular field of dentistry? Is there any area of dentistry you find more rewarding/challenging?

I am a Periodontist (Gum Specialist) practising in North West London. Until recently I was a senior research fellow and clinical lecturer at the prestigious dental centre, the Eastman Dental Institute and Hospital (University of London).

How long have you been in your current practice?

Since specialising in 1983. I qualified with an M.Sc with distinction. 

Did you find your qualifications were automatically accepted in the UK?

My qualification was accepted without the need for reaccreditation all those years ago, but the rules have changed since then. Nevertheless, I requalified by simply redoing my finals at the Royal College of Surgeons so that my degree could never be held in question. This is the best route to getting a British registerable qualification even today, and saves a huge amount of extra work for qualified dentists wishing to practise in the UK, or indeed the EU.

How would you compare the British public’s attitude towards your job to that of the SA public?

There is massive entitlement in respect of the Health Service, both dentally and medically. Unfortunately progressive governments have eroded this great institution into a job creation scheme for thousands of petty bureaucrats who have imposed a massive paperwork load on clinicians that is so untenable they are unable to get on with their jobs and actually treat patients effectively. Patients therefore expect everything for nothing, and they are getting an increasingly poor level of service but paying huge amounts of tax money for this wasteful and inefficient behemoth.

If you could change one thing (at a government or organisational level) to make your job better (easier, safer, more effective), what would it be?

Disband the Health Service completely and rebuild a modernised efficient system with emphasis on providing service rather than jobs, paying clinical staff decent salaries and improving their work conditions while getting rid of superfluous layers of wasteful management.  Furthermore the Health Service should provide emergency services free for British citizens only, and all other services on a means tested sliding scale depending upon ability of individuals to contribute towards the cost of treatment.

What is the biggest public misconception about your job?

That I and many other dental surgeons (and medical personnel as well) have left the service to work under private contract because we are perceived to be money grabbing greedy capitalists.  Most clinicians who have left the service have done so because they are simply not willing to drop their standards to the pitiful levels they would have to to remain in the NHS. In order to provide a good service to patients, either the Health Service has to be properly funded in respect of clinical staff. As newly qualified doctors are in effect paid less than secretaries for being responsible for people’s lives and being required to work long and unsociable hours, can you blame many of them who are either emigrating or refusing to go into clinical practice, but would rather work as secretaries or administrators in a 9-to-5 job with little or no responsibility whatsoever?

How does wearing a uniform change your job?

It doesn’t. There is less formality than before, so fewer people are wearing white coats. Nevertheless dressing like a scuffy tramp is also not acceptable.

Would you change your uniform?

No. I think it would be counter-productive because people want those looking after them to look clean and efficient, and generally they are wary of people who seem to be more interested in fashion and flash rather than professionalism. The uniforms for medical personnel have come a long way in recent years and catalogues of medical attire will attest to the fact that there is a large range of smart, crisp and modern professional wear available. I suppose there is always room for improvement, but when it becomes a fashion show and people are more concerned with protecting their clothing than their patients they lose credibility.

What has been your most rewarding day at work so far?

Most days are rewarding for me because I do the best I can for my patients and they appreciate it and are happy to pay for it. I have patients coming to me from all over the world to see me to save their teeth from extraction when their local dentists and sometimes even specialist periodontists have given up and told them they need either dentures or implants, both of which are very often unnecessary. When I am able to avoid loss of natural teeth and preserve their dentitions and have patients who are delighted with the work that I have done, that is my best reward!

Are you a first-generation dentist? Does anyone else in your family work in medicine?

Yes, the rest of my family are all lawyers, advocates and in South Africa judges as well.

You are the first person ever to be named UK Dentist of the Year twice. Was dentistry always a dream for you or, when and why did you decide to devote yourself to this field?

I never dreamt of or had a mission to be a dentist.  I am very artistic and able to use my hands for creative purposes.  As a young boy growing up in South Africa I was forbidden to do art as a subject because that was a ‘girls’ subject. Boys had to do metalwork and all sorts of “rough, tough, stuff”.  However I was always good at building and making and fixing things. That meant I had to do something in which I used my hands. I was very interested in science and engineering. Putting together art and engineering pointed the way to something in medicine, engineering,  or medical science. Plastic surgery or other surgical professions seemed to tick the boxes.  However in dentistry the work is more “hands-on” and the use of different materials with different textures and physical characteristics, matching colours between natural and artificial teeth, and constructing dental restorations seemed the best fit.

Once I got to this point, dentistry seemed more and more like the right thing. However I was unsure and I took a batch of personality tests at the South African National Institute for Personnel Research who came to the conclusion that I was unsuited for university, and indeed any profession but that I would be more suited to becoming a marine biologist!  With nine university degrees, as one of the most prolific research workers in my field (I have published over 120 research papers), the primary author in a textbook on my speciality, periodontics, and twice UK national dentist of the year, it shows how wrong professional advice from institutions can be!

The old joke about British teeth is still told on American TV. How do standards in British dentistry now (say, among the youth) compare with the standard of dental care older people received? Are British teeth improving?  

It is, and always has been a load of nonsense!  When you watch American television, you only see people with “the Hollywood smile”.  In the United States it has for many years been fashionable for people who could afford it to have their teeth cosmetically re-constructed to present the perfect gleam, so perfect that most of the time it looks fake.  Of course the majority of people in the United States who do not appear on television, or do not have high-profile professions such as politicians, etc and most importantly do not have lots of money, have had no public health care system at all, and have had to resort to having teeth out when necessary and not even being able to afford the luxury of dentures. Yes, when you walk around the streets of New York everyone has gleaming white teeth. Go into the less desirable parts of any American city, the poorer areas where tourists do not venture, and you will see a very different picture!

Yes, it is true that British politicians and even celebrities have retained the more natural look of teeth sometimes out of alignment, giving the erroneous impression that people in Britain have bad teeth. Britons have until recently preferred the natural look rather than the artificial “Hollywood smile” so popular across the pond. This is not because of bad teeth, but different priorities. In recent years however this has changed and the fashion for cosmetic dentistry to the level of perceived (although misguided in many cases) perfection has invaded Britain and you will now see that most people walk around with gleaming gnashers that have to do with  enough money to spare to afford these “makeovers” and nothing to do with dental health.

Do you often venture back home? What do you miss in South Africa?

When I left South Africa as a politically active student at Wits, and chairman of the Student Dental Council with outspoken views on apartheid, I felt I could not go back to South Africa while the apartheid regime was still in power. After its fall and the establishment of the new South Africa I have been back often, and I always enjoy being back ‘home’. I went to Pretoria Boys High School and I shall be returning next year for the 50th anniversary of my matric class.  I love Cape Town and I have been there on two lecturing conferences, and I am currently the trustee of a charity called “The Dental Wellness Trust” that aims to encourage primary preventive care (with an emphasis on dental care of course) in underprivileged communities.  As many of us in this charity are ex-South Africans there will be an emphasis on South Africa, probably in the Cape Town area, and I shall be going to South Africa again soon to help in the training of local people to get this project up and running. I love the sun, the sea, the sandy beaches, the dried fruit, the biltong, but most of all…I love the people!

If anyone wishes to get hold of me, they can do so by picking up my email address at my professional website which is

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