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The Dental Corps

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


VOLUME 5, NO. 4 (October 1934)



(Continued from page 162; July issue)

The foregoing pages have covered in a general way the distribution and activities of the Dental Corps during the early years of its existence. The records covered in the following paragraphs have been selected more or less at random and are referred to because they are a part of the record of the development of the dental service of the Army.

On August 23, 1902, the Surgeon General wrote the following letter to Chief Surgeons, Headquarters of the several Departments in the United States:

“Numerous applications are received in this office from the different posts for the services of a dental surgeon. In view of the fact that there are only thirty dental surgeons allowed under Act of Feb. 2, 1901, and as there are but nine stationed within the limits of the United States, it is necessary to send these men temporarily from one post to another as far as practicable so that their services may be available for as many officers and enlisted men of the Army as possible. While the dental surgeon in your department is assigned to a station, it is not intended that he shall remain there all the time. You should have him sent from one post to another whenever his services may be needed, say a month at one post and a month at another, more or less, according to the number of troops in the garrison. The dental surgeon is for duty in the department rather than at any one post and his services should be utilized accordingly. You are requested to take measures to carry out these instructions at once." (S.G.O. 77614 E.).

*(NOTE.—This is the seventh installment of a series of articles pertaining to the organization of the Dental Corps and the development of the Army dental service. These installments are a compilation of available records with such comment as is necessary to connect the record.—W.D.V.).


The result of the above instructions is illustrated by the assignments of Dr. Wm. H. Chambers. Dr. Chambers, Contract Dental Surgeon, reported at Fort Monroe, Virginia, .his first station, July 25, 1901, and remained continuously on duty at that station until Sept. 21, 1902. His station assignments for a period of approximately one year subsequent to that date were as follows:

Sept. 22, 1902, to Dec. 14, 3902—Ft. McPherson, Ga.

Dec. 15, 1902 to Feb. 9, 1903—Ft. Screven, Ga.

Feb. 9, 1903, to Mar. 14, 1903—Ft. Getty, S. C.

Mar. 15, 1903, to June 2, 1903—Key West Bks., Fla.

June 3, 1903, to June 22, 1903—Ft. Dade, Fla.

June 23, 1903, to July 13, 1903—Ft. DeSoto, Fla.

July 14, 1903, to July 17, 1903—Ft. Dade, Fla.

July 18, 1903, to July 20, 1903—Enrout to Ft. Barrancas, Fla.

On November 3rd, 1902, Dr. John S. Marshall, Examining and Supervising Dental Surgeon, Presidio of San Francisco, Calif., wrote the Surgeon General recommending “that privates of the Hospital Corps who have served as dentist's assistants or clerks for a period of six months may, upon recommendation of the dental surgeon with whom they are serving, be promoted, after an examination, to the grade of acting Hospital Steward with the pay, allowance, etc., of that grade.” (S.G.O. 70760-6).

The Surgeon General disapproved the above recommendation in general and stated that “the way is open to them to obtain the grade of n. c. o. if they so desire.”

On Feb. 17, 1903, Dr. Marshall wrote the Surgeon General inquiring “whether the Surgeon General would approve of his addressing personal letters to commanding officers of departments, regimental commanders and chief surgeons of departments, soliciting their opinion as to the character of the service being rendered by the dental surgeon, U.S. Army ; the need of establishing the Corps upon a permanent basis ; and the advisability of petitioning Congress to pass a bill upon the lines of the proposed bill recently forwarded to the Surgeon General. * * *” (S.G.O. 70760-11).


To this communication the Surgeon General replied “ * * * the action proposed by you is an unusual one in the military service, and therefore, before deciding upon its propriety, the Surgeon General wishes to be furnished with a definite statement showing the nature and extent of the inquiries which you desire to address to commanding officers of departments, regimental commanders and chief surgeons. Statement of the use and disposition which will be made of the replies to these letters, should they be sent, is also desired.”

Dr. Marshall’s reply to the latter communication stated that the information he desired to obtain was intended to be used as an argument for or against the permanent establishment of a Corps of dental surgeons upon a commissioned basis attached to the Medical Department. The questions he had thought to propose and solicit opinion upon by officers of the Army were as follows:

“Has the introduction of dental surgeons attached to the Medical Department of the U.S. Army proved of benefit to the service? Is it of sufficient benefit to warrant its being made a permanent feature of the medical service? Would it be a wise economical measure from the standpoint of health and the highest efficiency of the Army?”

Dr. Marshall further stated: “It now appears in view of the information contained in your letter, viz :- ‘that the action proposed by you is an unusual one in the military service’ that this action, if taken, should emanate from the office of the Surgeon General or of the War Department.” (S.G.O. 70760-11A).

“I would therefore respectfully suggest that if the proposed action meets with your approval that the views of the officers of the Army mentioned be ascertained upon the subject through your office as a preliminary step to such Congressional action as yourself and the Honorable Secretary of War may deem best in the premises.”

Thereupon the Surgeon General wrote to the Inspector General of the Army, through the Adjutant General of the Army, the following letter under date of March 24, 1903:

“I have the honor to request for the information of this department that in the inspection of posts inquiry be made by inspecting officers of post commanders as to whether the services


of contact dental surgeons are satisfactory and are of mutual benefit to the Army.

“Also whether the charges made by them for gold and other materials supplied to officers and enlisted men are deemed excessive.”

Dr. Marshall was advised of the request made upon the Inspector General of the Army.

Subsequently the Inspector General furnished the Surgeon General, through the Secretary of War, replies from the commanding officers of the following posts: Fort Grant, Fort Apache, Fort Huachuca, Fort Wingate and Whipple Barracks. On a whole their replies were favorable to continuance of the services of contract dental surgeons and that they considered the charges made for gold and other materials were not excessive. (S.G.O. 70760-11, B)

Under date of December 26, 1903, Dr. John S. Marshall. Examining and Supervising Dental Surgeon, U.S.A., Presidio of San Francisco, Calif., wrote the Surgeon General, suggesting that if hostilities occurred between the United States and the Republic of Columbia and troops are sent to the seat of War, that it would be in his judgment advisable to send a suitable number of dental surgeons with them. (S.G.O. 70760-23).

In connection with the need for dental surgeons in time of war, the Surgeon General made the following comment in a memorandum dated September 24, 1903:

“The Act of Congress, approved February. 2, 1901, limits the number of contract dental surgeons to thirty. They should not be so limited for war, where contrary to what might be expected their services seem very necessary, judging from the report of the commission on the conduct of the South African war.

“They should be employed in numbers needed by the Surgeon General with the approval of the Secretary of War.” (S.G.O. 103824).

The date of the following letter and the statements contained therein are particular interest at this time:


                                                                                    Office of the Dental Surgeon,

                                                                                                Presidio, San Francisco, Cal.,

                                                                                                            February 16, 1904.

To the Surgeon General, U.S. Army,

Washington, D. C.

My dear General:

When you and Major Borden were in San Francisco a few months ago, the Major, in a conversation with me, outlined your plan for the establishment of a large U.S. Army General Hospital and Medical School in Washington, D.C., for the purpose of treating such cases as need the attention of specialists; to form a central base station for the sick and wounded in case of war: and for clinical teaching of student medical officers who would be in attendance at the Army Medical School.

These plans are of great interest to me, not only from the side of military medicine and surgery, but I see great possibilities in them for the dental surgeons of the Army, and through them, the army at large and the public in general, if you could so enlarge your plans so as to incorporate them in your scheme.

By the establishment of such a post-graduate school for dental surgeons with hospital advantage along the line of oral surgery, and laboratories for special investigation in Applied Physics, Dental Histology, Pathology and Bacteriology, Organic Chemistry and Mechanics, the Medical Department of the United States Army might add greatly to its enviable reputation for scientific research and discovery.

I may state that during the decade just past much valuable information of an exceedingly interesting and practical nature to the dental surgeons has been discovered by the application of the Science of Physics, to ascertain questions relating to the strength of dentine and enamel, and the several filling materials under various degrees of stress. Also the chemical relationship between what are termed hard and soft teeth, and their ability to carry various degrees of stress, without fracture; which have upset all of our previous ideas upon these subjects. These are very important questions to the dental surgeon, for upon a correct knowledge and appreciation of these facts and his ability to apply this knowledge will depend in great measure, the permanency of his operations upon the teeth.

Studies in these subjects are, however, far from being exhausted and are likely to remain so for some time to come, unless they can be carried on through a school of the kind under discussion, as investigations on these lines require special and somewhat expensive apparatus, which few individuals are willing, or can afford to purchase at their own expense unless they are possessed of considerable means and leisure to devote to scientific pursuits. And, as there are no dental colleges in the country with endowments for any class of scientific investigation, this work has been done by individuals who, after working out a certain proposition, have given up for lack of funds or time to devote to further investigation.

There are also many important propositions in dental embryology, histology, and pathology, which have not yet been solved; while the study of the bacteriology of the mouth open up a vast field of original research as applied to the diseases of the oral cavity, and, particularly to certain diseases of the throat and lungs, and gastric and intestinal disorders. The fact, that the unclean mouth is the habitat of myriads of pathogenic bac-


teria, lends more than color to the supposition that many obscure infections will, upon further investigation, be found to have had their origin in the mouth.

Furthermore, from the standpoint of oral surgery, the establishment of such a hospital would furnish a magnificient [sic] clinic for the teaching of this department of surgery, and the mechanical methods of restoring portions of the jaw, the nose, or the face, by artificial substitutes, in those cases beyond the help of surgery; and the treatment of fractures of the jaws by the various forms of interdental splints, etc.

If appointment to the Dental Corps is placed upon the same basis as appointment to the Medical Corps has recently been placed, the examination conducted upon the same plan, and the successful candidates given a contract for one year and assigned to duty at a school of the kind outlined, with a course of instruction adapted to their official and professional needs, it would be of great advantage to the service, and also give an opportunity to ascertain their adaptability or inadaptibility for the service, and thus exclude undesirable men. On the other hand, dental surgeons returning from a three years tour in the Philippine Islands, where they have been cut off from contact with members of their own speciality, would greatly enjoy a few months detail at such a school of instruction, where they could have the advantage of studying the latest improvements in technique and operations, or where they might be sent to prepare for examinations for promotion.

Of course, in making these latter suggestions, I am looking into the future, for I know, at the present time, such a plan could not be carried out; but I see no reason why, in the near future, this or some similar scheme may not be adopted to the great advantage of the Corps, in scientific attainment and general efficiency in service, and, whatever increases their ability to perform a higher grade of service redounds, of course, to the good of the whole army.

In this connection I will speak of another matter that has been on my mind for a long time, viz., the need of competent dental assistants in the hospital corps. All of the dental surgeons have found great difficulty in securing enlisted men as assistants who know anything of dental surgery, and when they have found one, he is either addicted to the liquor habit and, consequently an unsafe person to trust with such delicate work, or else he soon becomes dissatisfied with his long hours, close confinement, and what he considers inadequate pay for the service rendered. I would therefore suggest that in the scheme for the dental school you consider the advisability of planning a course of instruction for enlisted men of the hospital corps which would fit them for the duties of dental surgeon's assistants, as indicated in Par. 1581 A.R. and also to do mechanical laboratory work. A bright student with a mechanical turn of mind could learn the practical side of the laboratory work in a course of instruction, covering six or eight months. On passing a satisfactory examination he could be given the grade and pay of a sergeant in the hospital corps. Men of good habits having this knowledge would be invaluable to the dental surgeons and make it possible for them to perform a much greater amount of work and at very little additional expense to the government, while at the same time, the men would be contented and probably remain in the service indefinitely.

*          *          *          *          *

Very respectfully,


(Signed) John S. Marshall.


Under date of December 23, 1904, Dr. Doxie Oberarzt, Freiburg, Baden, Germany, requested information regarding the Dental Corps of the U. S. Army and standard conditions of teeth required for entrance into the U. S. Army service or militia, for the purpose of assisting him in organizing a Dental Corps in the German Army.

Reply to the above communication was made by the Surgeon General under date of January 12, 1905, through the Military Secretary. Among other matters mentioned the Surgeon General stated that “an applicant for enlistment in the Army must have at least four sound double teeth on each side of the mouth so opposed as to serve the purpose of mastication.” (S.G. O. 77614-H).

With reference to dental requirements for enlistment in the Army, the following is taken from An Epitome of Tripler's Manual for the Examination of Recruits (Published for the information and guidance of recruiting officers in the examination of applicants for enlistment in the United States Army, 6/10/1884, by command of Lt. General Sheridan):

“The Mouth. Loss of Teeth.—If the front teeth have been lost by accident we should not reject the man, provided the double teeth or a sufficient number of them remain sound in both jaws. But if the front teeth have been lost from decay and the double teeth are unsound to any extent, the man should be rejected.

“If the front teeth remain and the double teeth are gone, rejection is again demanded, because the man is evidently incapable of properly masticating the food he must subsist upon in the field.

“It is not uncommon to find a loss of the natural teeth supplied by artificial ones fastened to a rubber plate. The fact that such a plate is worn should be noted on the enlistment papers, but the artificial substitutes can not be considered as taking the place of the natural teeth, or removing the disability on this account for military service.”

On November 20, 1906, the Surgeon General wrote to the Chief Surgeons of the several departments in the United States the following letter:

“In view of the numerous complaints of the inadequacy of the dental service at the various posts the Surgeon General di-


rects that you investigate and report upon the service in your department with special reference to paragraphs 1426 and 1484. A.R. Information is especially desired that the dental surgeons have observed the provision of paragraph 1426 A.R. which fixes the hours from nine A.M. to four P.M., and prohibits them from operating on those not entitled to free service during those hours. Failure on the part of the contract dental surgeon to comply with these regulations is considered sufficient cause for annulment of contract and all violations thereof should be reported.” (S.G.O. 77614 P).

The replies to the above communication were in general that no violations of paragraphs 1426 and 1484 were observed. (S.G. 0. 77614 PI-P8, inc.).

On March 30, 1907, the Chief of Staff requested to be furnished information in connection with the Dental Corps, which was covered in the following reply from the Surgeon General:

"1. There are thirty (30) in the Army.

2. They are stationed as follows:

In Philippine Division


In Department of the East


In Department of the Gulf  


In Department of the Lakes


In Department of Dakota       


In Department of Missouri


In Department of Colorado


In Department of Texas


In Department of California


In Department of Columbia


In Department of Cuba 


At Fort Slocum, N. Y.  


At Columbus Barracks, Ohio


At West Point, N. Y.


3. “There is no fixed period for visits to posts; the department commanders determine when and at what posts dental service shall be rendered and provide the itineraries to be followed.

4. “They visit such posts as department commanders direct, irrespective of the fact whether or not the services of civilian dentists can be obtained. The practice of sending dental sur-


geons from one post to another for long or short periods of duty at each has obtained since August 23, 1902, when the following instructions were sent from this office to the chief surgeons of the military departments in the United States. (See letter quoted above, August 23, 1902.—W.D.V.).

5. “Enlisted men are not obliged to have their teeth attended to but it is thought that all men gladly avail themselves of the services of the dental surgeon whenever the occasion seems to require.

6. “Statistics of dental cases treated do not seperate [sic] officers and enlisted men. The total number of cases treated in 1903 was 42,974; in 1904, 43,513; in 1905, 44,560; the statistics for 1906 are not yet completed." (S.G.O. 77614-Q).

On October 4, 1906, Robert T. Oliver, Examining and Supervising Dental Surgeon, West Point, New York, wrote a letter to the Adjutant, U.S. Military Academy, setting forth the need for an additional dental surgeon at that post. The Superintendent of the Academy forwarded Dr. Oliver’s letter to the Military Secretary, War Department, with the request that the letter be referred to the Surgeon General, and recommended that legislation be secured as soon as practicable adding one more dental surgeon to the present Corps to enable West Point to have an additional dental surgeon on duty there. (Under date of August 14, 1906, the Superintendent had requested the assignment of an additional dental surgeon at the Academy, which request was returned with the information that no contract dental surgeon was available for assignment to West Point). Dr. Oliver’s letter was incorporated in the recommendation of Wm. H. Taft, Secretary of War, to the Speaker of the House of Representatives for legislative action.

The Act approved Feb. 26, 1907 (Army Appropriation Act for Fiscal Year ending June 3.0, 1908) , increased the number of dental surgeons from thirty to thirty-one as follows: "For thirty-one dental surgeons * * *: Provided, That hereafter the number of dental surgeons authorized by law shall be thirty-one, of which number one shall be detailed to the United States Military Academy.” (G.O. 48, p. 10, Washington, March 8, 1907).

Dr.Oliver’s letter mentioned above contained the following interesting statement reference dental service for West Point:


“There has been a retired Hospital Steward, Dr. Saunders, on duty here as cadet dentist for the past forty-odd years and for the last five and one-half years, or since the advent of the Army Dental Corps, there have been two practitioners for the post.” (S.G.O. 106047-18 B).

Dr. Saunder’s illness and subsequent death was the basis for the recommendation for an additional dental surgeon at the Military Academy.

(To be continued)