Designing a piece of history: the USask College of Dentistry coat of arms

The year was 1968—three years after the University of Saskatchewan Senate approved the establishment of the College of Dentistry on the Saskatoon campus—and Dean K.J. Paynter was looking to develop an emblem to represent the college.

Background image: The USask College of Dentistry coat of arms design and heraldic blazon (precise verbal description) created and signed by USask alumnus and College of Engineering faculty member Professor Alfred Lyford Courtenay “Alca” Atkinson in 1968.

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Dr. K.J. Paynter, the first dean of the University of Saskatchewan College of Dentistry. Image : 1971 yearbook.

The year was 1968—three years after the University of Saskatchewan Senate approved the establishment of the College of Dentistry on the Saskatoon campus—and Dean K.J. Paynter was looking to develop an emblem to represent the college.

As head of the ninth, and newest, dental school in Canada, Dean Paynter had noticed that other dental schools had chosen to adopt the symbol of Caduceus—the traditional symbol of the ancient Greek god Hermes, featuring two snakes intertwined around a winged staff.

Paynter began reaching out to colleagues to understand the symbolism behind the emblems used by other dental and medical organizations. One of the first people he contacted for information was Canadian Dental Association (CDA) secretary Dr. W.G. McIntosh.

In a letter dated April 10, 1968, McIntosh explained to Paynter that the CDA had yet to finalize a decision on its emblem but that it was likely going to adopt “the only true symbol of medicine.” McIntosh was not referring to the double-snake symbol of Caduceus but, rather, to a staff with a single snake wrapped around it representing Asclepius, the Greek god of healing.

In the weeks that followed, Paynter worked with University of Saskatchewan staff to develop an early concept of a design that fused the wings of Hermes with the Rod of Asclepius while including other necessities such as a Latin motto, the triangular Greek letter delta and a colour scheme that included lilac, the official colour of dentistry since 1897.

CONTACTING ALCA

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The first concept sketch of the College of Dentistry emblem that Dean Paynter mailed to Professor Atkinson for heraldic review. The wyvern crest and the Greek letter omicron had yet to be incorporated into the design.

Upon the recommendation of A. Anstensen, chairman of the USask Ceremonials Functions Committee, Paynter mailed a copy of the preliminary coat of arms concept to Alfred Lyford Courtenay “Alca” Atkinson, a USask alumnus and former professor with the College of Engineering. Atkinson was in his seventies at the time and had moved to British Columbia after spending over 20 years teaching at USask.

A naval architect, engineer and artist, Atkinson had been relied upon as the University of Saskatchewan’s expert on heraldry. He had designed the coats of arms for a number of USask colleges and institutes including engineering, agriculture, St. Thomas More, commerce, arts and science, law, veterinary medicine, graduate studies, the USask Regina campus and the Institute for Northern Studies. He had also designed pieces for municipalities—several in British Columbia and, most notably, the crest and coat of arms that had been adopted by the City of Saskatoon in 1948.

In his handwritten reply to Dean Paynter in July of 1968, Atkinson provided a professional critique of the conceptual drawing Dean Paynter had called the College of Dentistry “crest.” 

 

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A young A.L.C. Atkinson, USask alumnus and former College of Engineering faculty member who would design the College of Dentistry coat of arms at the age of 72. Image courtesy of University of Saskatchewan, University Archives and Special Collections, Photograph Collection, A-3221.

One of Atkinson’s first comments was a polite reminder of the difference between a crest and a coat of arms. 

“One should not speak of the ‘crest’ as the whole coat of arms,” wrote Atkinson. “It is a part of it as, for example, Pegasus in the case of the College of Arts and Science.” 

Atkinson’s feedback also included explanations of several rules upon which the complex system of international heraldry is based. Colour usage, “charges” placed above a shield, artwork sizing and more were summarized in his initial three-page reply to Paynter. A key piece of advice Atkinson insisted upon was to forbid the use of any lilac colouring and shift the official colour to a heraldry-approved purple.

He also recommended moving the university’s symbols (a book of knowledge and three wheat sheaves) to a canton in the upper-left corner of the design as an “augmentation of honour.” This treatment was similar to seven of the designs Alca Atkinson had created for USask. 

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Selected examples of coats of arms designed by Atkinson. From left to right: Atkinson’s 1965 design of the USask College of Law coat of arms; Pegasus sitting atop the College of Arts and Science coat of arms; the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (one of the very few USask coats of arms designed by Atkinson where the university canton is not in the top left “point of honour” but, rather, in the flag held by the crest atop the shield); and the coat of arms designed by Professor Atkinson for the City of Saskatoon (image provided by the City of Saskatoon).

IRONING OUT THE DETAILS

This first exchange of letters between Dean Paynter and Professor Atkinson was by no means the last. In the months that followed, the two maintained regular contact by mail as Atkinson officially took on the role of developing a College of Dentistry coat of arms. They agreed to follow the spirit of the original concept while adhering to the heraldic traditions surrounding symbol placement and artistry.

During these mailed communications, Paynter and Atkinson exchanged several thoughts regarding how to best represent the college and the profession of dentistry. They decided to abandon the winged staff and twin snakes from the Caduceus in favour of the single snake around the wingless Rod of Asclepius. They also discussed how the Greek letter delta (Δ) represented dentistry and how they might also include the letter omicron (O) into the design to represent odontology. 

One of the items left mostly unaltered from the original drawing Paynter provided was the placement and wording of the college motto “meliora scientiam artem,” abbreviated from the Latin “ad meliora per scientiam et artem,” which means “excellence through knowledge and skill.” The only change to this part of the design was to ensure that the lettering appeared in the new purple colour on a silver scroll.

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A scanned excerpt from the first reply provided to Dean Paynter by Professor Atkinson, dated July 11, 1968. Alca had retired from USask to live in Sidney, British Columbia at the time.

THE CREST

One of the more subjective elements of the design process involved selecting a crest. Atkinson explained a crest as the animate or inanimate object resting above “what the knight in armour tied his crest on to his helmet with”—a wreath of six twisted bands.

Atkinson and Paynter considered several crest options. They provided their own suggestions and contemplated those provided by the ad hoc USask committee that was acting as a faculty council for the College of Dentistry in the days leading up to the launch of the DMD program in September of 1968.

The committee, Paynter and Atkinson were all in agreement that some type of creature would be preferred as the crest rather than an inanimate object. Crest options that were discussed included a lynx, a beaver, an elk, an antelope, and a moose head. The beaver was appreciated for its impressive work with its teeth but dismissed because of its existing relationship with engineering. The moose head was briefly considered, but only if placed facing “dexter” rather than “sinister” to avoid replicating the styling of the moose head Atkinson had used on the coat of arms he had designed for the City of Moose Jaw.

ENTER THE WYVERN

Mythological creatures and birds were also proposed by Atkinson, who even completed a conceptual drawing that employed a unicorn as the coat of arms’ crest. When that option was dismissed, Atkinson presented the idea of using a wyvern—a winged, reptilian beast similar to a dragon but having only two legs.

Upon receipt of an Atkinson drawing that included the wyvern as the crest on the coat of arms, Dean Paynter showed the design to members of the new dental college.

“The staff to whom I have shown the design are all enthusiastic about it, and our students (all 10 of them) seem also very impressed with your proposal,” wrote the dean. “As a matter of fact, the students made an enlarged copy of it to place on their first effort in building a Dental College float for homecoming weekend parade.”

DESIGN APPROVAL

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In 2018, as part of the 50th anniversary of the USask Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD) program, the College of Dentistry coat of arms was restored for high-resolution reproductions that aligned with the original intent of Professor Atkinson’s design, colour scheme and the rules of international heraldry.

By November of 1968, Alca Atkinson’s coat of arms design was approved by the committee acting in place of a college faculty council. The only requested change to the design was to add a silver chain of interlocked delta and omicron Greek lettering around the wyvern’s neck to mark the “charge” as an adopted entity of the college and of the dental profession.

With this final adjustment confirmed, Atkinson provided Dean Paynter with the wording for a heraldic blazon. This description outlined the design elements that would be formally incorporated into the college’s coat of arms when it was approved by the University of Saskatchewan Board of Governors in the summer of 1969.

The College of Dentistry’s coat of arms has been an important part of a history that now spans six decades. It is used as an emblem of honour on the white coats proudly received by second-year students of the DMD program. It graces the graduation class photos that fill the college’s third-floor hallway. It has been cast in bronze, etched onto keepsakes and has become an integral piece of the dental student experience at USask.

In order for the coat of arms to continue serving the college for decades to come, the graphic was recently restored to a more detailed rendering based on the final drawings that Professor Atkinson prepared for Dean Paynter and the college. 

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