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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 7, NO. 2 (APRIL 1936)



(Continued from page 33, January 1936 issue)

In a memorandum for the Secretary of War, the Surgeon General stated that the principles embodied in the bill as drawn had been accepted by a representative of the National Dental Association and that it was practically identical with a bill approved by the Surgeon General of the Navy and recommended in his annual report for that year (S.G.O. 106047-46-47).

On May 2, 1910, the Secretary of War made inquiry whether the Surgeon General thought the contract system of dental surgeons was best for general interests of the service. The Surgeon General replied that while it was his belief that the contract system worked fairly well, it did not secure as good a class of dentists as might be secured if candidates were given prospect of commission with rank of 1st lieutenant and increase of pay for length of service as provided in the bill he had proposed. He therefore did not consider the maintenance of the contract system to be the best for general interests of the service (S.G.O. 10604752).

It appears that amendments were proposed in Congress which would provide ranks of captain and major in addition to 1st lieutenant as the Surgeon General submitted a memorandum to the Chief of Staff, February 8, 1911, to be used in connection with the proposed amendments. His arguments against the amendments were practically the same as those previously stated (S.G.O. 106047-52½).

The Act of March 3, 1911, contained substantially the provisions of the Bill recommended by the Surgeon General.

*(NOTE.—This is the thirteenth 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.).


An extract from the Act reads as follows:

“Hereafter there shall be attached to the Medical Department a Dental Corps, which shall be composed of dental surgeons and acting dental surgeons, the total number of which shall not exceed the proportion of one to each thousand of actual enlisted strength of the Army; the number of dental surgeons shall not exceed sixty, and the number of acting dental surgeons shall be such as may, from time to time, be authorized by law. All original appointments to the Dental Corps shall be as acting dental surgeons, who shall have the same official status, pay, and allowances as the contract dental surgeons now authorized by law. Acting dental surgeons who have served three years in a manner satisfactory to the Secretary of War shall be eligible for appointment as dental surgeons, and, after passing in a satisfactory manner an examination which may be prescribed by the Secretary of War, may be commissioned with the -rank of first lieutenant in the Dental Corps to fill the vacancies existing therein. Officers of the Dental Corps shall have rank in such corps according to date of their commissions therein and shall rank next below officers of the Medical Reserve Corps. Their right to command shall be limited to the Dental Corps. The pay and allowances of dental surgeons shall be those of first lieutenants, including the right to retirement on account of age or disability, as in the case of other officers: Provided, That the time served by dental surgeons as acting dental or contract dental surgeons shall be reckoned in computing the increased service pay of such as are commissioned under this act. The appointees as acting dental surgeons must be citizens of the United States between twenty-one and twenty-seven years of age, graduates of a standard dental college, of good moral character and good professional education, and they shall be required to pass the usual physical examination required for appointment in the Medical Corps, and a professional examination which shall include tests of skill in practical dentistry and of proficiency in the usual subjects of a standard dental college course: Provided, That the contract dental surgeons attached to the Medical Department at the time


of the passage of this act may be eligible for appointment as first lieutenants, Dental Corps, without limitation as to age: And provided further, That the professional examination for such appointment may be waived in the case of contract dental surgeons in the service at the time of the passage of this act whose efficiency reports and entrance examinations are satisfactory. The Secretary of War is authorized to appoint boards of three examiners to conduct the examination herein prescribed, one of whom shall be a surgeon in the Army and two of whom shall be selected by the Secretary of War from the commissioned dental surgeons.”

Having covered official records on events leading to commissioning of dental surgeons in the Army, it seems proper to refer to comments made in dental publications during the period discussed.

The following is taken from the Editorial Columns of the Dental Cosmos, Vol. 50, page 1437, (Dec. 1908).



“Several communications bearing upon this perennial topic have reached this office, and we present them here in the nature of a symposium, believing that the points of view severally represented will enable our readers to keep h closer touch with some of the developments of this subject.

“It is pretty clearly evident that the existing conditions under which the army dental corps is compelled to render its service are altogether unsatisfactory from a professional standpoint, and from the standpoint of the relationship of the corps to the line—both of these defects being the outgrowth of the contract system.

“It is further in evidence that the obstacles in the way of securing legislation which will effectively correct the defects of the present system arise among other things from the outcroppings of self-interest which have for half a century stood in the way of a unified professional activity


back of this legislative movement. Until the dental profession can clearly formulate what it desires to attain by means of a national law defining the status of the army and navy dental surgeon, and is willing to recognize that due regard must be had for the relationships which dental service must in equity bear to other allied branches of the service, little progress can be made.

“A careful scrutiny of the several communications which here follow ought to make it evident that the dental profession has laid upon it a definite responsibility in connection with the army and navy dental service—a responsibility more far-reaching than the immediate question of the kind of service furnished in a dental way to the army and navy. That question is intrinsically important, but the great underlying problem which the dental profession has before it for solution is our professional status as defined by the law of the nation. In our anxiety to demonstrate the importance of our service to humanity we were willing to accept tentatively and as a sort of compromise measure a law which in its practical workings has served to do two things : First, it has given full opportunity to test the value of dental services to those enlisted in the defensive forces of our government ; but secondly, it has incidentally served to degrade the status of the dental practitioner in relation to officers and medical men, and reflexly [sic] to the enlisted men with whom the dental surgeon comes into direct contact. Thus the total result gained by existing legislation has been the opportunity to demonstrate the value and usefulness of dentistry in the army. This has been amply done by the untiring and devoted service of those engaged in it, but at a cost in terms of professional humiliation that self-respecting men ought no longer to endure. The contract system should be regarded merely as an entering wedge, which should be driven home with the full force of a united and organized dental profession back of it until it eventuates in a law giving to the army and navy dental surgeon the status and recognition to which his professional training inherently entitles him. Why our legislation has failed to accomplish this result, why we have no commissioned corps, is


pretty clearly set forth by Senator Bulkeley in the discussion of Dr. Grady’s paper before the Northeastern Dental Association. Senator Bulkeley speaks with the authority of experience, and his suggestions should be heeded.

“The path of army and navy dental legislation has been a long and devious one, beset with many obstacles and strewn with the wrecks of personal ambitions and personal friendships. Despite these regrettable incidents much has been gained. Every experience is educational, and there is encouragement in the evident tendency toward a better understanding of this important question by all concerned. No other factor in our professional life has so strongly emphasized the necessity for concerted effort, and that need is making itself felt to the extent of arousing a demand for a better organization of our professional forces that is bound sooner or later to materialize;—sooner, if every man will awaken to the fact that such questions as these are his questions—that what affects the profession as a body also affects him as a member of that body.

“The communications referred to are as follows:”

Lack of space prevents republication of letters. However, one signed by Richard Grady, D.D.S., M.D., resident dentist Annapolis, Md., contains quotations from Senator Bulkeley’s talk on ‘Dental Legislation from the Standpoint of a Legislator’ made before the Northeastern Dental Association which are of interest. The quotations were:

“Apparent jealously among the dentists themselves had hindered the passage of the bill, and the only way to secure this very desirable law is to secure united effort for it on the part of the dentists themselves. The question as to what rank a dental surgeon shall hold will prevent action unless the dentists themselves can see their way clear not to quibble about the rank.

“Nothing,” he said, “would add more to the comfort of the soldiers than skilled dental surgeons, and I hope they will be provided. I hope during my term in the Senate to see a bill which will give to the profession the position to which it is entitled.”


After approval of the Act of March 3, 1911, the following editorial appeared in the Dental Cosmos, Vol. 53, page 482, (April, 1911):

“On March 3, 1911, the bill known as the Army General Appropriation Bill, H. R. 31,237, became law by executive approval. The act referred to contains among its numerous provisions the following:

“This legislation marks an important step in the relations of the dental surgeons corps to the army service, and secures for the said corps a status which has long been the subject of serious contention, inasmuch as it abolishes the unsatisfactory contract system of employing dental surgeons in connection with the army service and gives to them official rank. It is true that the grade which the act accords to dental surgeons is far from being that which many active supporters of the movement desired; and failure to obtain the higher grades asked for will undoubtedly furnish ground for criticism by some and for disappointment in others, but that which is cause for congratulation and which should not be lost sight of is that the basis upon which dental service in the army is now provided for is one which places the army dental surgeon in a self-respecting position and one which at the same time will compel an equal respect upon the part of those with whom he is officially associated.

“Under the contract system the dental surgeon was from the army standpoint beyond the social pale. With official position and military rank he becomes part of the body corporate of the great military organization, and within his sphere will be duly respectable and respected. This change for his betterment is one which should be gratifying not only to those who are actively engaged in the service, but to all who have realized the indignity of the position of the contract army dental surgeon and the implied inferiority of the status of the profession which he represents in its relation to the military service.

“Even in the early efforts which first led to the establishment of the dental corps upon a contract basis an effort


was made to secure a better status for the dental surgeon in the army. The failure to achieve anything better than a contractual relation of dentistry to the military service was deplored by many, and the feeling was widely expressed at that time that the only dignified course for the dental profession to pursue under the circumstances was to decline to countenance or uphold such a relation. That the view implied in such an expressed attitude was an erroneous one has been proven by the subsequent course of events and by the final attainment of the principle originally sought to be established.

“The decade during which the contract system has been in operation has been fruitful of results; it has furnished the needed opportunity by which a demonstration could be made of the importance and usefulness of dentistry to those engaged in the military defense of our country. The possibilities of the benefits of dental surgery in largely reducing the percentage of disabilities arising from dental and oral conditions have been made evident, and it has also been demonstrated that the particular lesions which the dental surgeon is called upon to treat can only be properly and intelligently treated and cared for by those who are skilled in dental surgical technique.

“The service of these pioneer men who have engaged in contract dental service in the army is one which should never be forgotten. By their work they have forever disposed of that ancient fetish that diseases of the mouth and jaws can be adequately cared for by those who have only had the training and instruction furnished by the medical curriculum. They have demonstrated the possibilities of, and have thereby created a need for, skilled and specialized training in connection with the lesions which affect the dental and oral tissues, and have paved the way for the present official recognition of the importance of the service which they have rendered. Without the pioneer work of those who organized the service which has been carried on so successfully by the contract dental surgeon corps, this subsequent legislation, which accords what we believe to be, under the circumstances, a reasonable recognition in rank


and emoluments to the corps, would have been impossible, just as it was impossible in the beginning. The principle of recognition by the army of the commissioned corps of dental surgeons is now established upon a firm basis. Whether higher rank will be accorded to the dental corps in future will depend, among other things, upon the efficiency of the corps itself, and that in its turn upon the skill and efforts of those who compose the corps, but in any event it may be safely asserted that it will be an infinitely easier thing to obtain in the course of time increase of rank, now that a commissioned corps has been established, than it was or has been to substitute a commissioned corps with such rank as has been obtained in place of the existing contract corps. Moreover, in this result we have set a standard in the official recognition of the dental profession of which we may well be proud as a distinctly American achievement.”

(To be continued)