In fond memory of a much-admired member of the ADA family, Dr Robert Butler

13 September 2021

In fond memory of Dr Robert John Francis Butler, BDSc (Melb), LDS (Vic), DipPHDent (Syd), MDS (Syd), FICD, FPFA. 

25 January 1939 – 25 August 2021

Tribute by John Matthews, Richard Olive, Neil Hewson and Garry Pearson.

We were all saddened to hear of Rob’s passing recently. Given that Rob was a voracious reader and writer, it is perhaps ‘poetic’ that he was found seated with a book open on his lap. He maintained a lifelong interest in Australian Irish heritage and reform within the Roman Catholic Church. He was a regular columnist and letter-writer to associated publications. 

In his early days Rob played jazz piano in Brian Hanley’s Chicago 7. In the ’50s and early ’60s jazz was the ‘thing’. Indeed, the ability to create harmonies from discordant sounds stood him in good stead when dealing with dentists from different states as Executive Director (a role now known as Chief Executive Officer) at the ADA! He was a very successful Executive Director – organised, articulate, approachable, and with a great sense of humour, and was much loved by the ADA staff.

Rob had a passion for driving. It began with racing an Austin Healy Sprite (sometimes backwards), and then progressed to Jaguars and multiple 4WD vehicles.

His greatest love was his wife Wendy, who sadly pre-deceased him in 2008. Wendy was bright and great fun; she accompanied Rob to many dental functions and we enjoyed her company. He was a great father to Jeremy, Sarah and Ben, and grandfather to six girls.


Here is a summary of Rob’s contribution to our profession, prepared some years ago by Dr Richard Olive AM RFD:

Dr Robert Butler has made an outstanding contribution to the profession of dentistry in Australia. His contribution is unique in that during his career he served with distinction in the armed services, the public sector and in the administration of the dental profession, all at the highest level.

He served as a dental officer in the Royal Australian Navy from 1964 to 1981. As a Lieutenant he was a dental officer at HMAS Albatross, on board HMAS Sydney and at HMAS Harman. Promoted to Lieutenant Commander in 1968, he then served at HMAS Leeuwin, HMAS Nirimba and then as Senior Dental Surgeon at the Dental Training School, HMAS Cerberus. He was promoted to Commander in 1976 and served 1978-80 as Fleet Dental Surgeon on HMAS Melbourne and then 1980-81 as Command Dental Surgeon, Naval Support Command and Honorary Dental Surgeon to the Governor-General. During his naval service Dr Butler was awarded the National Medal, the Defence Service Medal, and the Vietnam Logistic Support Medal.

On leaving the Navy, Dr Butler was appointed Deputy Director of Dental Services, Westmead Hospital Dental Clinical School and in 1989 became Director of Dental Services, Westmead Hospital and Community Health Services and Area Co-ordinator, Dental Services, Westmead Hospital and Community Health Services. During this time he was also involved in teaching. During 1983-1988 he was an Honorary Clinical Lecturer (part-time) in operative dentistry at the Faculty of Dentistry, University of Sydney. Later the University awarded him the title of Adjunct Associate Professor – quite a rare honour.

In December 1993 Dr Butler was appointed Executive Director of the Australian Dental Association Inc., a position he filled with distinction for 10 years until his retirement in 2003. He represented the Association on the Council of Standards Australia, the Australian Council of Professions and the Dental Assistants Education Council Of Australia. In addition he served as the Association’s representative on numerous national government bodies, including the Australian Dental Examining Council (until ADEC was taken over by the ADC), the Professional Services Review and the National Oral Health Advisory Committee. He was also elected as a Special Director of the Australian Dental Research Foundation, a position he held for eight years.

Dr Butler was editor of this magazine, the News Bulletin, and was heavily involved in the development and expansion of the ADA’s website and wrote most of its weekly news reports. He was instrumental in the planning and upgrading of the Federal Secretariat offices and meeting facilities, and was responsible for the increased range of membership services available from the Federal ADA; under his management the Association’s Seal of Approval Programme expanded considerably. For his contribution to the ADA, the Association bestowed Honorary Life Membership on Dr Butler in 2005. This honour is usually bestowed only on past Presidents.

At the same time Dr Butler served other organisations in and out of dentistry. In 1993 he was elected a Regent of the Australasian Section of the International College of Dentists. He served as President of the Australasian Section during 2003-05.

There are very few dentists who have dedicated their entire professional careers to the service of the community and the profession as Dr Butler did so selflessly for more than 40 years, fewer who have performed at such a high level in so many spheres, and even fewer who are so highly regarded and whose counsel is so welcome.