Aug 22

This Day in History: U.S. Navy Dental Corps Anniversary

Thursday, August 22, 2019 12:01 AM

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Today 107 years ago, the 62nd Congress passed an act, later signed by President Howard Taft, establishing the U.S. Navy Dental Corps. Since then, the Corps, whose mission is to prevent or remedy dental conditions that may interfere with the performance of duty by members of the active naval forces, has treated members of the active naval forces and their families worldwide. 

In October 1912, the first two dental officers, Emory Bryant and William Cogan, entered active duty in the U.S. Navy. A year later, the Surgeon General of the United States reported to the Secretary of the Navy that the Medical Department was able to provide adequate dental care for recruits with defective teeth to be accepted by the Navy. 

In 1916, Congress authorized the president to appoint and commission dental surgeons in the Navy at the rate of one dentist per thousand enlisted personnel. From its original cadre of 30 assistant dental surgeons as authorized by the Secretary of the Navy, to the now 1,300-plus active duty and reserve personnel, the Dental Corps has served in times of peace and war to ensure dental readiness and optimize dental health. 

A Marine dentist sets up his office on Saipan, using a Japanese box as a footrest, a Japanese pail as a waste-bucket, and a Japanese shrine (left background) as decor for his waiting room. In order to keep his dentistry really ‘painless’ a Marine patrol nearby kept on the alert for Jap snipers. (U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archives)

Admiral Leighton W. Smith, Jr., USN (ret.) remarks on his experience with the Dental Corps:

The medical department was really great on the America. The America was full of such wonderful memories. Right after I took over, I went down to the dental department during my obligatory walking around the ship. We had a dentist who was a really nice guy. I was looking at the dental department, and he said, “While you’re down here, captain, why don’t you let me give you a dental inspection?” 

I said, “Fine,” so he sat me down in a chair. Well, I had years and years and years ago broken two front teeth, and they were kind of a V-shape and I’d never done anything about it because there was no requirement to. I mean they didn’t show. My mouth is such that when I smile that part of my mouth doesn’t really show that much, and they didn’t hurt. But he said, “We ought to cap these two teeth.” 

I said, “That sounds like a good idea.” 

He said, “Well, we have to do a little root canal first.”

I said, “MMMMM.” Well, I’d already agreed to the cap, so I certainly couldn’t back away from that. I can’t recall exactly when it occurred, but within a couple of days I was back down in that dental chair, and he was doing a double root canal on me. And I think the biggest compliment I ever paid a dentist in my life—and he always talked about this high compliment—I fell asleep in his chair while he’s giving me a root canal. I didn’t tell him it was because I hadn’t had any sleep the night before, but he did this double root canal, and he put in temporary posts. Then they were going to put these temporary fillings and this Filipino dental technician came in and he was so proud because he’d made these temporary caps and inlaid in them in gold was “66,” the number of the ship.

I thought, “You know, there’s no way I can keep these teeth in my mouth.” 

The doctor laughed and he said, “They’re temporary.” I did wear them around for a while until they got the real ones. But my experience with the medical department was good. 

Menomonee Falls native Marcia Finke teaches preventive dentistry to the children of active duty and retired Navy personnel in the Norfolk, Va. area. (U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archives)

Today, the Dental Corps maintains high operational readiness and prepares for Homeland Defense. Deploying with Marine Expeditionary Units and aboard ships, they participate in triage and surgical support. The Corps contributes to the Navy’s role in peacekeeping and nation-building through humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions in third world countries.