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Glimpses of BDA past

During the First World War dentists went to the front line as soldiers, and healthcare professionals. The British Dental Association played a key part in taking care of soldiers and civilians oral health during the conflict.Dentistry in the armed forces developed and changed because of events during WW1.

The First World War and dentistry

Many military recruits rejected because of their teeth

At the outset of World War One many potential recruits were rejected purely as a result of the state of their teeth. Criteria had been relaxed so that only recruits "whose mouths made them liable to break down from actual malnutrition" were rejected. Still rejections numbered in the thousands.

As reported in the Lancet of 12 September 1914, there had been a number of protests about the men being rejected on account of their teeth.


Sir E Ray Lankester wrote in the Times, for example:

"...let all nonsense about perfect teeth and other foolishness be dropped, and we can at once secure as soldiers half a million of the finest men in Great Britain and Ireland"

The Chairman of the Representative Board of the BDA at the time, Mr Norman G Bennett responded strongly both in the Times of September 5, 1914 and in the BDJ of September 15:

"Does not Sir Ray Lankester know that many thousands of men were invalided home during the South African War solely on account of incapacity arising from defective teeth, and that ten dentists were eventually sent out by the War Office? is not for the public good that a layman, however distinguished in other directions, should dogmatize on matters of special knowledge outside his take a man who is unfit and put him through a three months' training, and send him abroad and have him invalided home without having fired a shot is a sheer waste of money and for the benefit of nobody..."


Treatment form army recruits


The form above was to be given to rejected recruits allowing them to apply for free dental treatment.


Read the original BDJ report here.

Fillings and extractions were to be undertaken but no dentures fitted. However, the Manchester Guardian reported on 5 September that over three hundred recruits had been made efficient for service at Manchester Dental Hospital, and eighty dentures had been inserted, the cost being born by an institution that was already heavily in debt.

Nevertheless, Mr Percival T Leigh, the Chairman of the Leeds Dental Services Committee expressed disappointment in the Yorkshire Evening Post at the "failure of intending recruits to take advantage of the free dental attention offered, and to make themselves fit for service".


Why not a Dental Corps?

A letter appeared in the BDJ of 1 September 1914, from Percival Leigh calling for the formation of a Dental Corps. He believed that:

"If we were efficiently organized and given the opportunity, we should soon convince the authorities of the need for our services and obtain the official recognition desirable".

Letters were sent to both the War Office and the Admiralty by the BDA pleading for the numbers of dental surgeons to be increased in the armed forces.


This was as a result of a petition from members of the Association to the Executive Committee of the BDA. Read about this here.

On 1 November 1914 the BDJ published an article that had previously appeared in the Liverpool Daily Post in support of dental surgeons for the battlefield. He argued that once the army has passed a man's mouth fit for service there is still the problem of "keeping those teeth good when he gets to the front".

"....there is nothing," says one soldier who is now in hospital, "which takes it out of a man in the trenches more than toothache."

The author suggests that although only a certain amount of treatment would be possible yet

"...extractions could be made, teeth scaled, and mouth dressings and treatment given to the men suffering the distracting or merely the annoying pains of toothache."

Read the full article here. 


First dentists sent to practise at the front

After intense lobbying from the profession the BDJ reported in the 16 November 1914 issue:

"...six dental practitioners have been specially appointed to the Royal Army Medical Corps, and have gone to France, as dentists, with the rank of temporary Lieutenants, to the Regular Forces. Thus, should future developments justify it, the nucleus of a special Dental Corps is already in being."

The six chosen were:

Read a BDJ article about these men and life for a dentist on the Western Front.


Dentists relied on German chemicals and drugs

As the war began it became clear that a large number of the filling materials used by UK dentists had been manufactured in Germany, even those sold under English names. Read a BDJ piece on this from October 1914.

A Scientific Advisory Committee was formed at Sheffield University to help solve this problem. Read a follow up from the BDJ November 2014.

The Metropolitan Branch Research Committee later published in the BDJ a list of English drugs suggested for use as substitutes for German preparations. The German drugs included such staples as aspirin, lysol, potassium salts, trional and veronal.


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