Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
In a decades-long career, his dentures have helped many Australians love their smile again, yet what prosthetist Jon Doulman may be most remembered for is his handiwork for a koala named Triumph. By Tracey Porter
Jon Doulman didn’t become a dental prosthetist straight away. It was only after spending several years in the RAAF as an instrument technician did he then turn his hand to dental technology, graduating from Sydney’s United Dental School in the late 1970s. He subsequently went on to establish his own dental laboratories in Byron and Ballina and work as a ceramist doing mostly crown and bridge work.
It would take another two decades, hundreds of sets of patient-removable prostheses and three separate laboratories before his skills in prosthetics would be formally recognised.
What Doulman could not have known then was that due to his experience and expertise, he would—albeit briefly—become the most famous dental prosthetist on the planet.
Doulman, now aged 69, says that when the profession first came of age in the 1990s, well before the introduction of dental prosthetics diploma courses, the peak body of the day moved to certify the unofficial role many technicians played in creating dentures. The problem was there was no suitable course available.
“They called it the grandfather course because those of us who had been doing it a while were basically told that if we’d been making dentures for people for more than a certain number of years by ourselves, then we needed to come up and do a week-long certification course.”
Doulman says after an intensive few days learning and being tested on anatomy, muscles, and blood and nerve supplies—subject matter most technicians had only limited knowledge of—course participants were given a patient without any teeth. They were then given three days to produce a full set of dentures.
It was a testing time but one which would hold him in good stead for a long career in the industry, he says.
Recognising the increasing demand for dental prosthetics, Doulman sold off his laboratories and opened up denture clinics. Within a relatively short space of time, he owned and operated three clinics in Ballina, Byron and Lismore.
Doulman says his efforts were buoyed by some of the lessons he learnt earlier in his career, in particular ensuring precision point accuracy.
“As a prosthetist, when I left ceramics it was almost like a backwards step as ceramics was seen as the be-all of the technical side. But sitting down and making full arch ceramic restorations and things over three days was a full-on construction effort.
“What I did do was take the accuracy that you needed for crown and bridge work, and I applied it to the denture side of things. In ceramics everything has to fit and to work otherwise you develop a reputation for not being able to do your job. I never had people coming back and saying they didn’t like the colour or that it didn’t fit their mouth. Nothing ever left my clinic that wasn’t 100 per cent spot on, and that was a really good thing to do.”
Doulman, now on the brink of retirement, and just operating Lismore Denture Clinic, says that while he has built a lot of dentures for a lot of people, it would be lying to suggest he played a role in the evolution of dental prosthetics.
“In so far as coming up with experimental ideas and all that, there was no time for that; we were flat out.”
In 2017, a male koala was born who would test the upper limits of Doulman’s knowledge and skill and force him to get creative.
Doulan played a starring role in the life of the little joey after developing a series of prosthetic limbs that helped him climb trees, scratch and enjoy a fairly typical marsupial life after years of anything but.
Named Triumph, the koala was rescued by local veterinarian nurse and wildlife volunteer Marley Christian after being found next to his dying mother.
He had only three feet and a protruding bone in place of the fourth, and when taken back to the Friends of Koala centre in Lismore, his treating vet said Triumph was unlikely to survive on his own and suggested he be put down.
Instead Christian, a patient of Doulman’s, took the koala back home to care for him. An American company specialising in animal prostheses had tried to create a foot for Triumph but was unsuccessful.
Doulman volunteered to see if there was anything he could do to help.
“We went out to take a look at him and there he was walking around holding his back leg up in the air. He wouldn’t put it down on the ground because the bone was exposed. Luckily above where the foot was he’s got what looks like an ankle. I just thought if I could manufacture something and slip it over that ankle bump using Velcro on the top of it, I might be able to get it to stay on.”
Doulman spent five to six weeks refining the piece, which he made out of silicon product Molloplast, adding tread to allow Triumph greater grip in his natural environment and later putting holes in it to allow for better airflow.
It was an instant success. Doulman says within minutes of having the prosthetic fitted, Triumph was running around the room evenly on all four legs, and even began having a scratch, the first time he had been able to do so.
Within days, Doulman says “all hell broke loose” and his phone began ringing off the hook. His story made local, national and international news.
Sadly, within a few months Triumph developed leukaemia, and was later put down.
Despite Triumph’s sad demise, Doulman says that while he is very proud to have played a part in making the koala’s last few months enjoyable, he doesn’t see much of a future in making more Molloplast limbs.
“It was the highlight of my life I can tell you. They say that everyone has their 15 minutes of fame; well, that’s mine.”