Leaving a legacy

Following his retirement late last year, we spoke to Dr Michael McGuinness about his remarkable career.

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You only need to take a quick flick through Dr Michael McGuinness’ Curriculum Vitae to realise that his has been a remarkable career, however dentistry was not originally on his radar as a teenager in England.

“I wasn’t very good at school and at the age of 15, my father said: ‘You are going to leave school and get a job. I have got you a job as a lumberjack in Sweden’. It was his idea to make a man out of me and show me what the world was all about.

“Luckily, I was quite a big 15-year-old. Most of the lumberjacks that worked for the company at the time were mercenaries from South Africa. They were the toughest men you have ever met. I did six months as a lumberjack, which was the hardest work you will ever do.

Upon Michael's return to England, Michael's father had talked to a friend who was a dental technician working in Wimpole Street in London, who was in need of an apprentice.

“I started my time as a dental technician and I met a very famous guy named Paul McCartney,” Michael recalls. “His girlfriend Jane Asher lived in the building where I worked. I had wanted to become a professional cyclist, so I was riding to work every day as part of the training, and he caught me a couple of times in the downstairs lift area with my bike and we became friends. I honestly didn’t know who he was.”

It was studying to be a dental technician that ignited an interest in education in Michael. “As soon as I finished my City and Guilds, I enrolled in further education teacher’s certificate.” After passing the certificate the first-time round, he noticed an advertisement for a teaching dental technician in Western Australia.

“My girlfriend at the time was a West Australian girl and she said it would be fantastic if we both went back to Australia, and I had a teaching job. I ended up at the Dental School in Wellington St as an instructor technician.

“A significant moment in my life was when one of the teachers in that group said: ‘Couldn’t you do what the students are doing on one of those models?’. I said I thought I could, and he said I should resign and become an undergraduate, so that is what I did.

“I was accepted under Section 8, which was for ‘incredibly gifted people who haven’t had circumstance’. I went to night school for a year and did the matriculation and passed that, so I gained entry to university under Section 8 and the normal way and through my dental background. That was the beginning of my five-year under-graduate training.”

Practicing life

After graduation, Michael went into practice in St George’s Terrace and was there for 29 years.

“After 29 years I had enough and wanted to do something else,” Michael says. “We saw an advertisement in the paper for a beautiful house in Toodyay, which was built 1910 with 14 rooms. We bought that and land around it, so we have 350 acres of land.”

In 2005, Michael opened his practice in Toodyay and after that another practice in Goomalling. He closed the Goomalling practice three years ago, and recently sold the Toodyay practice, but for a long time he was the only dentist in the Toodyay area and built a great rapport with the locals. ‘On the whole, we had fantastic patients and the written letters and cards I have received since I retired is nearly 100. The new dentist at the practice says: ‘I don’t know if I will ever get to be like you; they love you’. I am shocked and humbled by the recognition.

Work with Vietnam veterans

Michael has a long history with the pro bono treatment of Vietnam vets, which began as an undergraduate when an oral surgeon asked if Michael could assist. “A lot of vets had a tendon put in their lip and it was a hole that was not expandable,” he recalls. “We had to work inside a hole around the size of a fifty-cent piece. For some reason, even though I have big hands, I had very good manual dexterity for work like this.

Michael has worked with the Vietnam vets for 46 years, and in recognition of this work, was awarded the prestigious Z Force Award. “They came unannounced to Toodyay and presented me with the award. It was a very humbling experience.”

As well as his work with injured vets, Michael also contributed to a scholarship through the local RSL. “The Sandakan scholarship sends children from our local high school on the Kokoda Trail – I paid for 10 years for 2 children a year to go.”

His commitment to the RSL was also demonstrated when he became the Chairman of the Bendigo Bank in Toodyay and behind-the-scenes, managed to help secure them a quarter of a million dollars for the rebuild of the RSL headquarters.


Michael is well-known for being instrumental in the build of the Oral Health Centre of Western Australia.

“I was the Head of School and at that time the school was in a very fragile position,” he recalls. “Shortly after I took on the position, the Deputy Vice Chancellor called me down to the university for a chat and said: ‘You weren’t told when you were made Head of School, but we are closing down.’ I asked why and he said the facilitates are terrible.

“I wanted young West Australians to have their own dental school. I was very lucky that Richard Court was a friend of mine. It was on the Friday I saw the Deputy Vice Chancellor and so after lunch I went to Richard Court’s rooms in Nedlands. We had a chat for a couple of hours, and I told him we needed $30 million – $15 million from the government and $15 million from the university for the new school. He came around to my house the next day on the Saturday morning. I was cutting some roses in the front garden when he pulled up and he said: ‘I have got something for you.’ I asked what and he said: ‘$15 million bucks’. “I said: ‘I have something for you’ and handed him the roses for his wife,” Michael laughs. “I then rang the Deputy Vice Chancellor on the Monday morning and told him and there was complete silence. He then asked if I would be the Head of Project. So, as well as carrying a full-time practice, I was the Director of the Project and was working literally 10 days a week. We finished on time and on budget.”

Michael went around the world to seek inspiration for OHCWA. “I didn’t want it to look like a hospital,” he recalls. I wanted people to look at it and think: ‘Wow this is beautiful. The entrance is a copy of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I was in New York with one of my great friends, Dr Andrew Brostek and our wives sometime after OHCWA was completed and I took him to the Museum of Modern Art and he stood there and went: ‘It’s OHCWA!’”

The building of OHCWA meant Western Australia had a state-of-the-art facility and resulted in local dental students being able to complete their degrees in Western Australia, who would otherwise have had to complete their studies in South Australia.

Yonagah Hill Immigration Detention Centre

In addition to his other commitments, Michael has been working at the Yonagah Hill Immigration Detention Centre for the last six and a half years.

“Six years ago, I received a phone call from a guy in Sydney asking if I had time to be a dentist at the detention centre. I said I could do one day a week. Now I have retired, I do two days a week. Before I started they never had a dentist there for very long – maybe six months.”

A new chapter

Michael’s contribution to dentistry has not gone unnoticed – Dr M F McGuinness AM was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 2016. He was honoured for significant service to dentistry as a clinician, to oral health education, to professional groups and to the community of Toodyay. Michael says he did not set out to take on all his contributions, but the recognition has been humbling.

Michael has also held a position as the President of the Dental Board of WA and Vice President of the Australian Dental Council in Melbourne.

Following the sale of his practice late last year, retirement hasn’t officially begun for Michael as he is still in the midst of the handover of his practice. However, things have started to slow down.

“One of the things I have noticed on my drive into the town in the morning, is that I have lost the nervous tension that you behold in what the day is going to bring for you,” he says. “Farmers can be particularly bad in the way that ‘if it doesn’t hurt, don’t go’. So usually everything ended up being traumatic that needed to be fixed now.
As a country practitioner, you need to be good at oral surgery, you need to be good at endodontics and you need to be willing to step in and do it then and there.”

Michael says he will be keeping busy maintaining his properties, is hoping to spend more time with his grandchildren and hoping to start oil painting when he gets the time.

However, it is clear that his great reputation as a dentist will continue in his community as someone who has treated generations of family in Toodyay. “I have had hundreds of cards and handwritten letters; I even received one this morning,” he says. “Every second person is kissing me and shaking my hand. I have been very much part of the community in Toodyay and I didn’t realise that until I retired. It is lovely.”

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