University of Toronto Magazine University of Toronto Magazine
Photo of Dennis Smith.
Faculty of Dentistry, Photography Department

Dennis Smith Pioneered Biomaterials in Canada

Leading scientist brought together experts from chemistry, medicine and dentistry to advance innovative new field

Ever since the ancient Mayans first used sea shells as dentures, scientists have worked hard to identify which substances can be safely introduced within the body to repair, replace or even create body parts. Hence the fascinating field of biomaterials: one that has given rise to everything from heart pacemakers to contact lenses to modern day tissue engineering.

Dennis Smith is recognized as a major figure in this ever-changing domain. The U.K.-born chemist, who passed away in February at the age of 85, came to Canada in 1969 and eventually attained the position of Professor Emeritus at the Faculty of Dentistry. Smith first achieved renown for his contributions to hip replacement surgery. While working at a dental hospital in Manchester, he devised the idea of using dental acrylic cement to fuse an artificial hip with a human femur. The idea worked, and is still in use today.

This mix of chemistry, medicine and dentistry was unlikely at the time – but Smith’s particular brilliance lay in bringing these worlds together. “He was a communicator,” says Robert Pilliar, an engineer who was encouraged to work at U of T by Smith. “One of his great strengths was that he was very sociable, and able to reach out to anyone who might make a contribution.” In 1971, two years after his arrival in Canada, Smith gathered talents from four disciplines to found the Canadian Biomaterials Society, the first of its kind in North America. He later established the Centre for Biomaterials at U of T, where researchers have since produced a stream of innovations extending to almost every aspect of human health. The centre later merged with the Institute of Biomedical Engineering to form the Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering.

After Smith’s retirement from the university in 1993, he became involved in what was perhaps the most heavily publicized biomaterials story in history – investigating the safety of silicone breast implants. A physical chemist, he had particular expertise on the reactivity of inert materials with living systems. Yet, it is worth noting that the implant crisis came at the dawn of great transition in his field. Around this time, “scientists started thinking not just of whether or not inert materials would harm the body, but whether they could actually contribute to cellular activity,” says Pilliar. Thus it is that Smith’s successors now use synthetic materials as scaffolding for living cells, from which they can actually grow new body parts.

The IBBME today includes professionals from three partner faculties, all working together to create a brave new world of biomedical advancement. Forty-five years ago, says Pilliar, “the university wasn’t tuned into the fact that we could create this level of activity between disciplines and faculties. That they eventually did was certainly very much Dr. Smith’s doing.”

Recent Posts

Photo of front campus field and Convocation Hall with flower emoji illustrations floating above

Clearing the Air

U of T wants to drastically cut carbon emissions by 2050. It’s enlisting on-campus ingenuity for help

Abstract illustration showing a red-coloured body and face, with small black and white pieces flowing from inside body out of the mouth, and the U.S. Capitol Building dangling on puppet strings from one hand

The Extremism Machine

Online disinformation poses a danger to society. Researchers at U of T’s Citizen Lab are tracking it – and trying to figure out how to stop it

Prof. Mark V. Campbell with a beige background and red lighting

Charting Hip Hop’s Course

Professor Mark V. Campbell grew up during the early years of rap music. Now, he is helping preserve Canadian hip-hop culture for future generations

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. One Response to “ Dennis Smith Pioneered Biomaterials in Canada ”

  2. Dr alan j dobkin says:

    Dennis Smith was one of my lecturers at Manchester University dental school in the U.K. He was a brilliant communicator and impressed on me the importance of questioning all we were told before accepting.