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Walter D. Vail and the History of the U.S. Army Dental Corps

AMEDD Corps History > U.S. Army Dental Corps

Books and Documents

While serving as assistant to successive Chiefs of the Dental Corps, Col. Rex H. Rhoades and then Col. Frank P. Stone, in the Dental Subdivision (later Division) from 1932 to 1936, Maj. Walter D. Vail had many jobs. His primary duty assignment was as the assistant in charge of the one-man dental service section, who was responsible for “the advisory supervision and direction of the clinical activities of the dental service” (Annual Report of the Surgeon General, 1933, 208). However, Vail, who had also served as an assistant in the Dental Division during part of World War I, had a number of other duties, both official and unofficial. When Rex Rhoades revived what had been The Dental Bulletin as the new Dental Bulletin Supplement to The Army Medical Bulletin in January 1933, he appointed Vail as the editor in addition to his principal duty. Vail used the Dental Bulletin as a vehicle to publish his own thoughtful articles on the importance of a dental health program and preventive dentistry in the U.S. Army (see below under “Dental Health of the Army”).

Unofficially, however, Vail was also one of the earliest historians of his own corps. With ready access to the voluminous official records and correspondence of the Surgeon General’s Office (SGO) and the Dental Division that were then in the records room and library, Vail began to reconstruct the early years of the Dental Corps and dentistry in the Army. In the Dental Bulletin, Volume 4, No. 2 (April 1933), he published his first article entitled “Organization Day” that traced the background to the establishment of the contract dental surgeons in the Army Reorganization Act of February 2, 1901. This was the first of what eventually became a 14-part series that appeared in every issue of the Dental Bulletin until July 1936. That summer Vail transferred to his new assignment as the dental surgeon at Hamilton Field, California, and his historical articles ended.

His work was based entirely on official records, and he meticulously cited each source document that he used or quoted by its existing SGO file and document number. Today, any interested researcher can use those same SGO numbers to locate those same documents that are now in Record Group 112, Records of the U.S. Army Surgeon General, in the National Archives and Records Administration.

As no one before and few since, Vail sketched the highlights of the earliest years of the Dental Corps and dentistry in the U.S. Army. In a note at the end of his first article, Vail outlined his reasons for the series:

  1. To inform dental officers of the development of the dental service;
  2. To stimulate their interest therein;
  3. To provide a reservoir of information concerning the dental service.

He achieved those goals and much more. Walter D. Vail’s “unofficial” work as a historian has left an important and enduring contribution to the history of the U.S. Army Dental Corps.

Walter Vail’s final contribution to the early history of the Dental Corps came in 1940 when he published a biographical sketch on the life and achievements of John Sayre Marshall, whose contributions to the Dental Corps and Army dentistry are legendary.

Biographical Sketches:

“John Sayre Marshall, Pioneer Army Dental Surgeon (1846-1922).” Dental Bulletin Supplement to The Army Medical Bulletin 11 (July 1940): 110-22.

Historical Articles:

“Organization Day.” Part 1 of 14. Dental Bulletin Supplement to The Army Medical Bulletin 4 (April 1933): 70-78.

“Organization of the Dental Corps.” Part 2 of 14. Dental Bulletin Supplement to The Army Medical Bulletin 4 (July 1933): 115-22.

“Organization of the Dental Corps.” Part 3 of 14. Dental Bulletin Supplement to The Army Medical Bulletin 4 (October 1933): 160-72.

“Organization of the Dental Corps.” Part 4 of 14, Dental Bulletin Supplement to The Army Medical Bulletin 5 (January 1934): 35-47.

“The Dental Corps.” Part 5 of 14, Dental Bulletin Supplement to The Army Medical Bulletin 5 (April 1934): 89-98.

“The Dental Corps.” Part 6 of 14. Dental Bulletin Supplement to The Army Medical Bulletin 5 (July 1934): 152-62.

“The Dental Corps.” Part 7 of 14. Dental Bulletin Supplement to The Army Medical Bulletin 5 (October 1934): 215-24.

“The Dental Corps.” Part 8 of 14. Dental Bulletin Supplement to The Army Medical Bulletin 6 (January 1935): 18-26.

“The Dental Corps.” Part 9 of 14. Dental Bulletin Supplement to The Army Medical Bulletin 6 (April 1935): 73-80.

“The Dental Corps.” Part 10 of 14. Dental Bulletin Supplement to The Army Medical Bulletin 6 (July 1935): 135-53.

“The Dental Corps.” Part 11 of 14. Dental Bulletin Supplement to The Army Medical Bulletin 6 (October 1935): 199-211.

“The Dental Corps.” Part 12 of 14. Dental Bulletin Supplement to The Army Medical Bulletin 7 (January 1936): 27-33.

“The Dental Corps.” Part 13 of 14. Dental Bulletin Supplement to The Army Medical Bulletin 7 (April 1936): 72-79.

“The Dental Corps.” Part 14 of 14. Dental Bulletin Supplement to The Army Medical Bulletin 7 (July 1936): 133-44.

Dental Health and Preventive Dentistry in the U.S. Army:

“A Study of Dental Conditions of Officers of the Army with Reference to the Loss of Teeth and Their Replacements.” Dental Bulletin Supplement to The Army Medical Bulletin 4 (July 1933): 103-107.

“Dental Health in the Army.” Dental Bulletin Supplement to The Army Medical Bulletin 5 (July 1934): 144-51.

“Dentistry as a Factor in Preventive Medicine in the Army.” Dental Bulletin Supplement to The Army Medical Bulletin 7 (January 1936): 1-6.