If you’ve ever spent an afternoon digging through the Toronto library archives, you’ll find many interesting stories from a bygone era, including the unlikely story of how a Toronto dentist and public health advocate once held political office. Back in the 1940s, Dr. Frederick L. Conboy was the mayor of Toronto for four years, but before that, he was committed to a long career as a dentist.
“The only motive a sane man can have for centering Civic public life is a desire to render a real service, and that means constant work and great anxiety,” Conboy said in a statement to city council in January 1945, after serving in office for four years.
The gravity of his words may have come as a surprise to his political peers, who likely spent less time in the public sphere providing dental service to the people of Toronto. Nevertheless, Conboy’s explanation for why he chose a public-health-oriented, self-sacrificial profession—work with the people, not within the ivory tower—is inspiring to anyone pursuing a career in dentistry.
Conboy’s path to political office is not surprising when you consider his professional history. From the very beginning he had a passion for public service. In 1904, Conboy graduated from the Royal College of Dental Surgeons’ School of Dentistry, which later became the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Dentistry.
Soon after he set up his own practice on Bloor and Westmoreland, and took a keen interest in the oral hygiene of low-income Canadian schoolchildren.
Conboy advocated for the rights of children to receive dental inspections along with other medical care, and in 1912, after spending several years on the board of school trustees, became the youngest ever elected chairman of the Board of Education. Later, Conboy contributed many articles to Oral Health, arguing that the government had a moral responsibility to provide universal dental care.
By the 1920s, Dr. Forbes Godfrey, Ontario’s Minister of Health, had taken notice of Conboy’s work and appointed him as the provincial director of dental services. This position enabled him to apply “the modern science of preventative dentistry to the needs of the public generally, and to children of school age particularly.”
This launched a decade-long crusade to reform Ontario’s public dental health, with work done in public schools, industrial factories, and professional and university-level athletics. His trailblazing work in the public sphere inspired other dentists to offer voluntary services to the lowest income residents of Ontario and created stronger awareness of the public dental health crisis province-wide.
Conboy set his sights on city council, winning a seat in 1935 and an additional seat on the Board of Control the following year. It was from this unique vantage point, at the intersection of public health and politics, that Conboy was able to envision a future as mayor of Toronto.
When he announced his campaign in 1941, he was endorsed by all three major Toronto newspapers. He went on to win the mayoral election—and ran unopposed during the following two years.