Dr. Frederick L. Conboy's career as a dentist and public-health advocate leads to four years in the mayor's chair.
“The only motive that a sane man can have for entering Civic public life is a desire to render a real service, and that means constant work and great anxiety.” So said Frederick J. Conboy to city council in January of 1945, at the conclusion of four consecutive one-year terms as mayor of Toronto. Conboy’s time in office marked the apex of a long public-service career with roots in public-health dentistry.
Conboy graduated from the Royal College of Dental Surgeons‘ School of Dentistry (the forerunner of the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Dentistry) in 1904, and soon established a practice at the northeast corner of Bloor and Westmoreland. Conboy’s instructors included several established dentists who advocated for increased awareness of dental health and public-health education. Paediatric dental health was a particularly celebrated cause; for several decades, activists such as Dr. John G.C. Adams had been calling for the regular inspection of the teeth of local schoolchildren. In A History of Dentistry in Canada, D.W. Gullett writes that “year after year, dental organizations submitted resolutions or briefs to governments, pointing out the existing oral health of Canadian children and emphasizing the need for action.”
In 1909, Conboy won a seat as a school trustee. While also attending to other education business, one of Conboy’s earliest campaigns was for the Board of Education to recognize dentists’ certificates of illness with respect to absent teachers, arguing that a dentist’s certificate should count as much as a physician’s. It was during his time as a trustee that the school board introduced dental inspections; The Journal of the Ontario Dental Association later wrote that Conboy’s advocacy was “largely instrumental” in getting this service implemented. In addition to his dental interests, Conboy soon proved himself a skilled leader and administrator, and in January of 1912 he was elected chairman of the Board of Education, reportedly the youngest person to date to hold this position.
Following his time as a school trustee, Conboy lectured at the School of Dentistry, and was soon an active member with many professional organizations and committees. During the First World War, he began contributing to the journal Oral Health, in part by editing “Pro Bono Publico,” a regular column that proclaimed to feature “dental information in a form suitable for publication in the public press.” Many of his contributions to Oral Health focussed on paediatric dentistry, and the role he believed that government had in ensuring universal access to dental care.
(Right: Frederick Conboy has been named Drector of Dental Services. The Evening Telegram, January 29, 1925.)
In 1923, Conboy served a term as president of the Ontario Dental Association, after which he assumed the role of the organization’s secretary-treasurer. Among other contributions to the ODA, he initiated and edited a monthly publication called The Booster, which later changed its name to The Journal of the Ontario Dental Association, and, subsequently, Ontario Dentist.
While serving as the Ontario Dental Association’s president, Conboy invited Dr. Forbes Godfrey, newly installed as Ontario’s first-ever Minister of Health, to speak at the ODA’s annual convention. Godfrey spoke of the need to promote oral health and vowed to establish a dental division within his portfolio. This promise came to fruition in 1925, when Godfrey named Conboy as Ontario’s director of dental services. The purpose of this new position, as stated by the Globe, was to apply “the modern science of preventive dentistry to the needs of the public generally, and to children of school age particularly.” Over the next 10 years, Conboy used this role to advance public dental health education throughout Ontario using a variety of methods.
An editorial in the following year’s Public Health Journal identified some of Conboy’s first projects as dental director, and praised his ability to get support from outside groups: “Life insurance companies have distributed pamphlets by thousands. Various clubs and welfare organizations have taken an interest….Advertisers and the press have cooperated in a most friendly way, and last, but not least, the dentists of the province have given a full measure of cooperation.”
In 1926, Conboy established October 20 as “Dental Health Day.” In addition to free dental clinics offered in Toronto, events reported in the Star included “radio talks, addresses to service clubs, and window displays,” as well as a “public dental health concert.” The Province also prepared an educational film that was distributed to Ontario movie theatres.
In 1928, Conboy introduced a dental booth at the Canadian National Exhibition, where visitors could receive free dental X-rays that were forwarded to their personal dentists back home. Following the initial success of the booth, it was expanded in subsequent years to include longer hours and free full-dental examinations. Describing the CNE booth in 1929, the Globe reported that Dr. Conboy and his staff were particular proud to discover “two sets of teeth almost perfect” in one day, the Globe adding, “Proudly the dentists pointed out the minute perfections as The Globe representative was permitted a view of the novelty.”
In an effort to encourage continuing education amongst professional dentists, Conboy helped organize a joint convention of the Ontario, Canadian, and British dental associations held in Toronto in 1932. The event—which also featured dentists from Australia and New Zealand—was held at the Royal York Hotel, and represented the first international dental convention for the entire British Empire. In addition to the requisite social activities and lectures, part of the Royal York was transformed into a tiered operating theatre where dentists could observe demonstrations of experts at work. The Evening Telegram described the setup thus:
“Dentists to right of them, dentists to left, back and front of them, dentists climbing all but inside them. This was the fate of the stalwarts who, acting as ‘mannequins’ for surgeons, submitted to operations in droves in the surgery of the Royal York….The hostelry’s $100,000 operating room was a hive of bustling excitement. Arranged in tiers up to the ceiling, was a ‘gallery’ of dentist-spectators, and down in the pit of the anaesthetic-laden chamber, man after man submitted, with smiles on their faces, to their teeth being probed and ground, pulled and twisted, hammered and jerked.”
Conboy’s other activities as dental director were various. In December 1925, he announced a plan to help establish dental clinics in industrial factories, telling the Globe it was “poor policy for a manufacturer to install expensive machinery and neglect the importance of maintaining the efficiency of the machinist.” In 1933, the Star announced that Conboy planned to look at rugby in Ontario, and conduct a survey “to discover how many perfectly good teeth have been left behind by high school players, as well as the university and interprovincial league players.” His advocacy work included urging professional dentists to donate their time for the poor who could not afford their services. “Good health is the right of every boy and girl in the Province, and we must see to it that everything is done to ensure it,” he asserted in a speech reported by the Globe, the reporter adding that “smugly complacent dentists who are content to serve only those who can pay, ignoring unfortunate sufferers who are not in [the] favoured class, were censured by [Conboy].”
After serving as the Ontario dental director, Conboy turned his eye to municipal politics, and landed a seat on city council in 1935. Prior to the 1950s, Toronto held municipal elections on an annual basis; Conboy was reelected to Council the following year, after which he ran for and won a seat on Toronto’s elected executive committee, the Board of Control.
Conboy quickly proved a skilled and popular member of both city council and the board of control, gaining a reputation as a politician who got things done and worked well with his fellow officials. In addition to public-health advocacy, Conboy was noted for his support of the development of the Island airport and for his efforts in slum clearance.
When incumbent Ralph Day announced he would not seek reelection in 1941, Conboy declared himself a candidate for mayor, promising improved financial administration and dedication to the war effort. All three major Toronto newspapers endorsed Conboy over fellow board of control member Douglas McNish, and Conboy was duly elected with more than 62 percent of the cast vote.
The Second World War dominated municipal issues during Conboy’s time in the mayor’s office. Conboy headed a delegation that helped secure the Sunnybrook Farm property as the site for a much-needed veterans’ hospital. The war years also saw a rise in venereal disease in Toronto, prompting Conboy to request $10,000 from city council to help contain its spread. Conboy, perhaps helped by being the son of a market gardener, also dedicated himself to the war effort by growing a victory garden that the Telegram described as “the envy of neighbours for blocks around him.”
Conboy’s other actions as mayor included efforts to improve public safety, resulting in increased street lighting and changes to the existing traffic laws. Reflecting on his time in his office, newspapers also noted his capable response to the 1944 snowstorm, and his work to improve the quality of housing in the city, all while managing to lower the City’s debt.
After running unopposed for mayor in 1942 and 1943, and defeating the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation–affiliated Lewis Duncan in 1944, Conboy sought a fifth term in office, challenged by board of control member Robert Hood Saunders. Conboy and Saunders reportedly worked well together in municipal politics, and the Toronto press agreed that both were very similar candidates with good civic records. The Telegram renewed its endorsement of Conboy, but both the Star and the Globe and Mail, while praising Conboy’s work in office and admitting that Saunders and Conboy were very much alike and equally qualified for the post, opted to throw their support behind Saunders.
“The Globe and Mail believes that Dr. Conboy, after holding the office of chief magistrate for four years, might well concede the right of someone else to occupy this honourable—and exacting—post, and considers that Mr. Saunders merits the promotion,” ran one editorial. The Toronto Star went further: “Men who enter Toronto’s public life should be able to look forward to promotion if their abilities and services warrant it. If the path to promotion is blocked by the man ‘at the head of the line’ staying on and on and on and on—and still another ‘on,’ a fifth, if Conboy has his way—those who legitimately seek to move up are blocked. They shouldn’t be. The mayoralty should not be regarded as any man’s private perquisite, if equally good or better men are ready to succeed him.” Although the Telegram rejected these arguments, the public apparently agreed that a change was needed, and Saunders assumed the mayoralty in 1945.
Conboy remained active as a dental advocate following his electoral defeat, and soon announced plans to become an insurance broker. He re-entered the political arena in 1948, standing as the Progressive Conservative candidate for Bracondale in the provincial election. Although George Drew’s Conservatives retained their majority government, Conboy was defeated by CCF candidate Harry Walters.
In declining health for several months after he was struck by a car, Frederick Conboy was admitted to Wellesley Hospital, where he died on March 29, 1949. Toronto newspapers praised his outstanding years of public service, both to the city and to the profession of dentistry. The Toronto Star wrote that he “took a warm, practical interest in the growing generation. He worked to improve housing conditions. He concerned himself with nearly every aspect of good citizenship….This country needs more citizens of the Conboy type who will not begrudge time and effort in rendering service to the people in the realm of the municipal government.”
The dental community was similarly full of praise for all that Conboy had done over his career. The Journal of the Ontario Dental Association, a publication he had himself established, wrote that “he was proud of his profession and never lost an opportunity to extol it. He often said that Dentistry had been awfully good to him and he could never do enough in return. Through his efforts to advance the cause of Dental Public Health and the credit he brought to Dentistry through the high public offices he held, he well discharged the obligation that he felt he owed his profession.”
Additional material from: Additional material from: The Globe [and Mail] (January 4, May 7, 1909; November 25, 1910; January 5, 1912; November 21, 1917; August 24, 1920; May 17, 1923; January 29, May 28, December 28, 1925; September 8, 1928; August 17, 1929; May 29, July 9, September 5, 1931; January 21, August 9, 1932; July 28, 1934; December 2, 1936; September 2, 1938; December 21, December 30, 1940; August 20, December 2, December 3, December 17, December 29, 1943; October 24, December 7, December 27, 1944; March 8, 1945; March 30, 1949); Barry Gough, Through Water, Ice & Fire: Schooner Nancy of the War of 1812 (Dundurn, 2006: Toronto); Francesca Grosso, The History of Sunnybrook Hospital: Battle to Greatness (Dundurn, 2014: Toronto); D.W. Gullett, A History of Dentistry in Canada (University of Toronto, 1971); The Journal of the Canadian Dental Association (May 1949); The Journal of the Ontario Dental Association (May 1949); Heather MacDougall, Activists and Advocates: Toronto’s Health Department, 1883-1983 (Dundurn, 1990: Toronto); Oral Health, Vol. 18 (1918); The Public Health Journal, Vol. 17, No. 10 (October 1926); James W. Shosenberg, The Rise of the Ontario Dental Association: 125 Years of Organized Dentistry (Ontario Dental Association: 1992); The Toronto Star (September 28, 1905; May 8, 1909; May 17, 1923; January 29, April 15, December 28, 1925; January 14, 1929; July 24, July 25, 1931; January 31, 1932; October 31, 1933; December 31, 1934; October 2, December 11, December 30, 1940; August 12, 1943; October 31, December 8, December 13, December 19, December 22, December 29, 1944; January 2, 1945; June 3, 1948; March 29, March 30, 1949); The Evening Telegram (January 29, 1925; August 9, 1932; December 31, 1940; December 27, December 31, 1943; December 29, December 30, 1944; March 29, 1949).
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