Dentistry During World War II - an Unappreciated History
“It wasn’t fun, going through that stuff,” stated Lawrence Schaub when interviewed about his dental experiences in World War II. He proceeded, “Boy, we did complain a lot, but they did a good job with what they did. If we didn’t have good dental health, it was damn near impossible to do what we had to do. And now, we know that dentists are more important today than we ever did back then.”(1) Dentistry played a significant role in World War II. The dental field often goes unappreciated and falls into the background of historical studies on World War II and wars in general.
This essay will delve into the dental field, primarily during World War II, and its importance for the soldiers and significance throughout the war effort. From examining Howard Sarty's letters to his girlfriend, and future wife, Yvette, I noted all the dental issues he had to suffer through at Fort Knox and Camp Campbell. This prompoted me to do more research on the topic of World War II dentistry, because I had never read much of anything on this topic prior to my research. Through my research, I've found that although often unappreciated, the dental field played a key role in World War II and our history as a whole. I hope to advance the historical study of dentistry and advocate that we do not overlook the dental field in our examination of history. Dental officers often carried the burden of poor working conditions and the dangers of the field of battle, as you can see in Figure 1, and yet tirelessly provided the needed dental care for our soldiers. These dental officers had a greater impact on the war than has been accredited to them.
Dentistry has an interesting history in the United States. Dentistry’s association with the United States military goes all the way back to the Revolutionary War. A little-known fact, often unknown by most people, is that Paul Revere was a dentist. Figure 2 is a photograph of his dental tools. Paul Revere executed the first recorded instance of military forensic identification on the remains of Major General Joseph Warren at Bunker Hill.(2) Most dental care was taken care of by civilian dentists during the 1800’s. Soldiers would be on their own when it came to treatment and had to pay for dental care themselves. It was during the Civil War and Spanish American War that armies recognized that they needed dental care for soldiers. Then, in 1872, William Saunders was appointed as the first United States Army dentist.(3) In 1911, the U.S. Army Dental Corps was established. The Dental Corps mission has been to provide the most comprehensive dental care possible to our soldiers.(4) Figure 3 shows a cross section of a model tooth being used for instruction by the Dental Corps.
Dentistry and the U.S. Dental Corps has evolved throughout history, especially during wartime. Dentistry played an important part in past wars, but the significance of the Dental Coprs and the dental field was heightened during World War II. The Dental Corps is not just needed for wartime. Colonel Richard D. Shipley states, "In war, the mission of the Dental Corps is to preserve the fighting strength by the restoration and preservation of oral health and function." Shipley also states that in peacetime, the Dental Corps provides comprehensive dental care for soldiers to ensure they are in optimal oral health and prepared to deploy.(5)
Wars have had a significant impact on the development of dentistry. Wars greatly influenced the establishment of children’s and hospital dental services, dental hygienists, and dentistry in the NHS (England) and the United States. For example, in the Boer War, 4,400 men, out of 69,553 men that were inspected, were not accepted because of loss of teeth from decay. The two world wars prompted the development of hospital dentistry.(6) In World War I, most forces had no dental services, so dentists would initially enroll as soldiers. In England during World War II, the commander of the First Army had a toothache, but there were no British dentists to treat him. As a result of this, twelve dentists were sent to France and were linked to the Royal Army Medical Corps.(7)
World Wars I and II had a great impact on dentistry in the United States. The two world wars needed considerable dental support, and at the peak of this issue, the United States Dental Corps provided. By 1918, there were 4,620 dental officers working on active duty. They conducted over 1.5 million restorations, over 384,000 extractions, and over 73,000 crowns and dentures during the World War I. In the time span of 1942-1945, over 69 million restorations, over 16 million extractions, and over 2.5 million full or partial dentures were provided by dentists. Each army division usually had more than thirty dental officers.(8) Throughout all the wars in the twentieth century, there was a need for a dependable, productive, and proficient Dental Corps in the United States.
Dentistry was often overlooked and viewed as unimportant during WWII. Soldiers often looked at dentistry as a burden and more of an inconvenience during the war. Lawrence Schaub stated that he and his buddies would dread going to the dentist, hating even the thought of it. They figured that the dentists were doing more harm than good many times.(9) The aid that dental officers were giving soldiers were not just important for functioning in daily life, but also beneficial in later life for these men.
The dental professionals during World War II did a remarkable job with the technology and medical knowledge they had available to them at the time. In a quote by Harry Blumenfeld, D.D.S. (Doctor of Dental Surgery), he stated, “But these veterans rather the men coming in, received good work. And we had an officer’s dental laboratory. And it was self-contained. They could make false teeth, dentures, or partials or anything.”(10) Lawrence Schaub stated that, while excruciating and somewhat barbaric it seemed at times, the dental work done by these dental professionals during the war were well done.(11) Figure 4 shows the cramped and seemingly rudimentary quarters dental officers would operate in. Because of all the men they would have to take care of, the dental officers would often use no pain killers and try to execute the procedure, such as a tooth extraction, very quickly.
Dental professionals in the field of battle had even more to worry about. Dental officers working with soldiers near the battle field had more than just caring for their patients to worry about. They had to stay a far enough distance away from the battles as to not be harmed, but close enough so that emergency procedures and care could be available to soldiers. Figure 5 shows dental technicians working in a mobile field laboratory during World War II. The working conditions for these dental officers in the field were unpleasant and miserable to say the least. In a speech given to the George Eastman Institute in Brussels on October 21st 1944, Major Alastair Robertson of the No. 54 Field Dental Laboratory, British Liberation Army, stated, “Working conditions were anything but ideal. When it rained, as rain it did, the ground became so waterlogged that anything dropped, even as large as a denture, might quite easily be lost forever.” He goes on to say, “When it was hot, as hot it was, we often had to remove the sides of the marquee. We were then literally consumed in dust and it was necessary to keep sheets of wax ready for use immersed in water to prevent them from melting.(12)
The war aided the field of dentistry by leading to new treatments for oral conditions and advancements in the medical field as a whole. During World War II, the dental field began the use of new drugs, such as penicillin, streptothricin, tyrothricin, and streptomycin. Dr. J. Obst, editor of The Journal of the Second District Dental Society said, in 1945, “While the use of new drugs, such as penicillin, streptothricin, tyrothricin, and streptomycin is no substitute for adequate surgical principles, their development for general civilian use in the near future can be classified as a great advancement in dental and oral science.”(13) Because of the number of cases with which these drugs were used by the army and navy, it shortened the experimental stage of the new drugs substantially.
One of the main advances in oral surgical techniques was the development of the external fixation screw for fractures, according to Dr. J. Obst. The fracture is held together by screws fixed from the outside of the jaw, letting the patient carry on normal functions, such as eating or talking.(14) Figure 6 shows an X-Ray of three fixation screw implants. Fixation screws are now used for all kinds of fractures. The process is now called “Internal Fixation.” Internal fixation permits shorter stays in the hospital, patients heal faster, and reduces the chance of the bone healing improperly.(15) Without being widely used in World War II by dentists, the advancement of fixation screws would not have been so expedient, and this useful medical technology would not have come into use as soon as it did. The Army and the Navy used knowledge on dentures from civlian dentests for the mass production of plates. Many of the cases that these would be used for were unusual to civilian life, were studied, and added a great deal of new knowledge to surgical and mechanical treatments, stated Dr. Obst. He proclaimed that there was "a great contribution by the armed forces toward making military personal dentally health conscious." Dr Obst believed this awareness would carry over to civilian life, which it did, “aiding in the prevention of tooth and mouth diseases and relieving somewhat an already overtaxed profession,” in his own words.(16)
The dental work done by these professionals during World War II often lasted years after the war before the soldiers' dental work needed additional support. Poor dental health has now been found to be linked to cardiovascular disease, respitory health, diabetic complications, bone health, and more. This just augments the importance of the dental field and work done by dental professionals during World War II and in our history in general. Dental officers in World War II were not just assiting soldiers so they could function without pain in the moment of war, but possibly even preventing future health complications later in life for their patients.
Often times the dental field is overlooked in our study of history. One cannot argue with the evidence presented of the significance of the dental field, specifically in wartime, that was had on the war effort. The dental professionals during World War II, both in the field of battle and off, had great obstacles to overcome. Throughout all the adversity, troubles, and tribulations of the war, these dental professionals continued to service the soldiers that fought to keep this country safe and all soldiers for the countries that battle in World War II. Without dentistry and the dental officers in World War II, our soldiers would have suffered severely from tooth decay, mouth pain, poor dental hygiene, and oral issues might’ve been too much to bear during battle. The dental professionals of World War II did our nation and all soldiers a great service and should be honored and remembered for their valor and resiliency.
Author: Sean Zimny
(1) Lawrence Schaub, Interviewed by Sean Zimny, Milbank, South Dakota, October 23, 2015.
(2) Colonel John E. King and Colonel Raymond G Hynson “Highlights in the History of U.S. Army Dentistry.” Office of the Chief U.S. Army Dental Corps, 10 (2007): 13, accessed November 2, 2015. http://history.amedd.army.mil/corps/dental/general/highlights/Highlights.pdf.
(3) Colonel Conrad F. Bodai, “Dental Support for the Army after Next,” U.S. Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, PA, 1 (1998): 1, accessed November 4, 2015. http://armypubs.army.mil/doctrine/DR_pubs/dr_a/pdf/fm4_02x19.pdf.
(4) King and Hynson, "Highlights in the History of U.S. Army Dentistry," 13.
(5) Colonel Richard D. Shipley, “Dental Corps Structure: Past, Present, and Future,” U.S. Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, PA, 1 (1993): 1, accessed November 2, 2015. http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a265095.pdf.
(6) Stanley Gelbier, “125 years of dentistry, 1880-2005 part 7: War and the dental profession,” British Dental Journal 202 (December 2005): 794.
(7) Ibid., 795.
(8) Bodai, "Dental Support for the Army after Next," 1.
(9) Lawrence Schaub, Interviewed by Sean Zimny, Milbank, South Dakota, October 23, 2015.
(10) Harry Blumenfeld, Interview by John K. Discoll, Wisconsin Veterans Museum Research Center, 2004, accessed November 2, 2015. http://www.wisvetsmuseum.com/collections/oral_history/transcriptions/B/Blumenfeld,Harry_OH513_.pdf.
(11) Lawrence Schaub, Interviewed by Sean Zimny, Milbank, South Dakota, October 23, 2015.
(12) Freddy Hulm, “Dentistry in the field – a mobile dental laboratory during world war II,” British Dental Journal 202 (January 2007): 107.
(13) “War Methods Held Aid to Dentistry: Experience with New Drugs and Techniques Seen as Advance in Science,” New York Times, December 8, 1945, accessed November 3, 2015. http://search.proquest.com/hnpnewyorktimes/docview/107066862/6DDB76348DB340BAPQ/1?accountid=10244.
(14) Ibid., 1.
(15) American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, “Internal Fixation for Fractures,” American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons website, last modified March 2014, http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=A00196.
(16) “War Methods Held Aid to Dentistry: Experience with New Drugs and Techniques Seen as Advance in Science,” New York Times, December 8, 1945, accessed November 3, 2015. http://search.proquest.com/hnpnewyorktimes/docview/107066862/6DDB76348DB340BAPQ/1?