The Harbour Gracian who repaired Gandhi’s dentures

Dr. Butt - India 1943By 1931, Herbert Mercer Butt (1907-2005) of Harbour Grace was a dentist in Poona (an anglicized form of Pune), India. The road he had traveled to get there was no less interesting than the variety of clients in his dental practice in the country.

Receiving his early education at Coughlan Hall, as a young man, he entered Montreal’s McGill University.

He originally planned to make a career as an electrical engineer. Detecting some degree of dexterity with his hands, he determined instead to become a surgeon or a general practitioner. He changed his mind again when he thought back on Dr. Charles Cron (1886-1962) of Harbour Grace, who rarely had time off. A career in dentistry, though, would provide Herbert with both regular working hours and leisure time.

Between academic years, he worked summer jobs, including on a paddlewheel ferry between New York and Albany, as a truck driver in Boston, and as a door-to-door salesman.

On Christmas Day 1931, he arrived in Bombay (now Mumbai), later assuming the duties of dentist in Poona. (His mentor, the Oregonian, Dr. Dexter Davidson, had established a dentistry practice in the city.)

In 1937, Herbert, now popularly known as “Robin,” because of his red McGill sweater, returned to Harbour Grace, in search of a marriage partner. However, he returned to Poona, still single, but with pleasant memories of time with family and friends.

One morning, two months after arriving back in Poona, Robin was pleasantly surprised to receive in his office an attractive young missionary, assistant principal of a girls’ school. Lois Jean Denniston (1910-2005), daughter of an Australian merchant, had a toothache. He treated her, then married her in 1938.

Dr. Butt Sahib (“owner” or “proprietor”), as he was known to his Indian clients, tended a wide variety of patients. For example, he worked on the teeth of “Tommies,” common soldiers in the British Army, and full Generals. There were ladies, rajahs, maharajahs and celebrities. There was the Aga Khan, the millionaire leader of a small Indian Mohammedan cult. There was the Nizam of Hyderabad, then the world’s richest man. There was Prince Peter of Greece and Denmark (1908-80). There was the Viceroy of India, who has been described as having “the power of an absolute monarch, with no responsibility at all to the Indian people and subject only to the British government in London.”

GandhiPerhaps best known among Dr. Butt Sahib’s clients was one Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948), the pre-eminent political and spiritual leader of India during the Indian independence movement. Ron Pumphrey refers to Gandhi as “the then upstart and now Indian hero.”

The Butts’ son, Trevor, tells me in an email: “While Dad was doing dental work in Pune (Poona), Mahatma Gandhi was incarcerated there.”

Actually, Gandhi had been held in prison on several occasions, his first imprisonment in India being in 1922. Ten years later, his prison cell was in Poona. On May 6, 1944, he left a British prison for the final time. He had spent an almost unbelievable six-and-a-half years in them–2,089 days in India, 249 days in South Africa.

Gandhi’s upper dentures were sent for repair to Dr. Butt Sahib’s office in Poona.

Interestingly, William L. Shirer (1904-93), the well-known American journalist, war correspondent, historian and author of Gandhi: A Memoir, chatted with Gandhi many times. Their first meeting was on February 22, 1931.

“As our talk began,” Shirer wrote, “I tried to take in not only what Gandhi was saying but how he looked…. His actual appearance…was not one you would have especially noticed in a crowd.” At 61 years of age, Gandhi was showing wear and tear on his face. Shirer remarked on his turned-down nose, widened at the nostrils. Another impression stayed with Shirer. Age, fasting, the Indian sun, the years in prison, and the “long, hard, nervous work, had…sunk in his mouth just a little so that the lower lip protruded, and teeth were missing–I could see only two.”

Admittedly, Dr. Butt Sahib did not actually meet Gandhi face to face. However, the Harbour Gracian did hold in his hands and repair the Indian leader’s upper dentures!

The Butts returned to Newfoundland in the late 1940s when, in the words of Jack Fitzgerald, “British troops were being withdrawn from India and an Indian civil war was anticipated.”

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