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World War One

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?...it is not for the public good that a layman, however distinguished in other directions, should dogmatize on matters of special knowledge outside his experience...to 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 the life for a dentist on the Western Front.


Read a Dental Historian article about the need for exemption from active service for dentists during the war.



The Battle of the Somme

Fought from the 1st July to 18th November 1916, the Battle of the Somme led to the wounding or deaths of more than a million men.


On the BDA World War 1 memorial we have the names of four dentists who were killed in action during that period.


All four were qualified dentists in practice before the start of the war. However, none was serving in his professional capacity.



​Norris Snell

Norris Snell – Capt. East Yorkshire Regiment – killed in action July 14th 1916 aged 41

"Killed in action on July 14, Captain Norris Snell, East Yorkshire Regiment, the beloved husband of Ethel May Snell, of "Redlands," Warrington Road, Ipswich."


Donald B Morrish

Donald B Morrish – 2nd Lt. King’s own light Infantry – killed in action August 18th 1916 aged 25


"We regret to record that another young member of our Association, 2nd Lieutenant Donald Bernard Morrish, King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (Trench Mortar Officer), has fallen in action. He was killed in France on August 18. Lieutenant D. B. Morrish was the younger son of Mr and Mrs John Morrish of 46, Carson Road, Dulwich, and was 25 years of age. He qualified as L.D.S.Eng. from Guy's Hospital in 1913, and had been in practice at Cambridge. He joined the British Dental Association in 1913. At hospital, Morrish was a quiet, efficient worker; popular among his fellow students and all with whom he came in contact."


John E Wheeler

John E Wheeler – Capt. Royal Garrison Artillery – killed in action November 10th 1916 aged 29


"We regret to report the death of a young member of the Association, Captain John Eric Wheeler, who was the eldest son of Mr S Wheeler, of Leicester, and was educated at Wyggeston School. He entered as a student at Charing Cross Hospital and the Royal Dental Hospital, and among the distinctions he gained was included the "Woodhouse" Scholarship. He qualified as L.D.S.Eng. in 1908, and joined the Association in 1909. He was a pupil of Mr Walter Harrison (Hove, Brighton), and afterwards for some time associated with him in his practice, being also on the Staff of the Brighton and District Public Dental Service.

"He was a most conscientious man in all his undertakings, and a true and kind friend, and also well read, being devoted to literature.

"He took a keen interest in the Boy Scouts, being Scout Master at Shrewsbury, where he practised with Mr Quinby. He joined the Sussex R.G.A. Territorials some years ago and on going to Shrewsbury was transferred to the Lancashire and Cheshire R.G.A.

"Early in the war he volunteered for Foreign Service, and in the spring went to France with a Siege Battery; his death occurred on November 10."



Claude H Stainer

Claude H Stainer – 2nd Lt. Loyal North Lancashire Regiment – killed in action November 15th 1916 aged 31


"We regret to announce that Second Lieutenant Claude Hamilton Stainer, Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, was killed in action on November 15, 1916, whilst attacking a German trench. He was the youngest and only surviving son of Captain William Stainer, R.N., of 22, Twyford Avenue, West Acton, W., and was 31 years of age. He qualified as L.D.S.Eng. in 1913, from Guy's Hospital Dental School, where he was very popular and esteemed both by his teachers and by his fellow students. He was in practice in Lydenburg,Transvaal when war broke out, and he returned to England to offer his services to his King and Country. He obtained his commission from the Inns of Court O.T.C. in August, 1916, and crossed to France in October. His death has occasioned sincere regret among his brother officers and many friends".


Morrish, Snell and Stainer are commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.


Wheeler is buried in the Guillemont Cemetery.

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.

Suggested reading



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