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Organization Day

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


VOLUME 4, NO. 2 (APRIL 1933)



The organization of the Dental Corps began with the ap­proval of “An Act to increase the efficiency of the permanent military establishment of the United States,” on February 2, 1901. It is altogether fitting and proper that February 2nd should be known as Organization Day and that members of the Corps should be familiar with records in connection therewith.

On September 25, 1894, Richard F. Doran, D.D.S., wrote the War Department for information regarding dental surgeons in the U.S. Army or Navy. To this communication The Surgeon General replied “ * * * that no such office existed; the services of a dentist when required being paid for by the officer or enlisted man employing him.” (S.G. 2486). This was the beginning of The Surgeon General’s record relating to the employment of dental surgeons in the Army.

The following year (June 25, 1895,) a similar inquiry was received and next year (November 18, 1896,) another was recorded. In the year 1898 inquiries became more frequent; several tendered their services as dentists for the war. To all of these inquiries the substance of The Surgeon General’s replies was that quoted above (S.G. 2486).

May 6, 1898, the Chairman on Military Affairs, U.S. Senate, referred to the War Department for remark Senate Bill 4531 “To provide for the appointment of a Dental Corps in the U.S. Army.” The Surgeon General considered the proposed legislation unwise and unnecessary and stated “* * * the policy of the Government has always been to make officers and enlisted men responsible for the care of their own teeth.” A similar bill (H.R. 10508) was received from the House on June 8, 1898, and a similar reply was returned (S.G. 2486 P.S.).

On August 6, 1898, The Surgeon General wrote the Dean, Department of Dentistry, Ohio Medical University, Columbus, Ohio: “I am in receipt of your letter of the 1st instant in relation to the appointment of dentists in the U.S. Army, and in reply to


inform you that in view of the short term of enlistment of soldiers, and as no man having teeth so defective as to interfere with his duties as a soldier is enlisted, the appointment of dentists in the Army is considered unnecessary.” (S.G. 2486-56).

January 24, 1899, Wms. Donnally, D.D.S., Washington, D. C., requested and forwarded an amendment to Army reorganization bill. In reply The Surgeon General wrote Dr. Donnally “* * * I would say that I do not approve of your proposition with reference to dental surgeons. As I have already said to you, I have not been an advocate of the proposition to add to the Medical Corps of the Army the one hundred dentists provided for in the Hull Bill. Moreover an Army medical officer must serve for five years before he has the rank of Captain; he rarely attains the rank of Major in less than from fifteen to twenty years, the rank of Lieut. Colonel after thirty to thirty-five years service and many of our medical officers have been retired at the age of sixty-four without reaching the rank of Colonel.” An official copy of this letter was respectfully furnished the Hon. J. A. T. Hull, M.C., Chairman, Committee on Military Affairs, House of Representatives (S. G. 2486-104).

That amendment was considered by the House of Representatives on January 30, 1899. When the House, sitting as a Committee of the Whole House on the State of the Union, had under consideration the Army Reorganization Act, Sec. 11, (Med. Dept.) the Chairman, Mr. Hull, offered a committee amendment which read: “In line 10, Sec. 11, after the word Lieutenant, insert the following: One hundred dentists with rank, pay and allowances of first lieutenant, mounted, who shall be graduates of a dental college and shall pass a satisfactory professional examination.” Mr. Hay (Va.) offered an amendment to the amendment which provided that the professional examination should be competitive and that dentists appointed should not be over thirty years of age. The amendment and the amendment to the amendment were lost (Page 1290 Cong. Record, Jan. 30, 1899).

The provisions of this bill apparently gained some publicity as applications for appointment were being received from various sections of the States. The Surgeon General’s reply to all these communications was, in substance, that there had been no legisla-


tive action by Congress providing for the appointment of dental surgeons in the Army (S.G. 2486).

January 15, 1900, the Secretary of War referred to The Surgeon General for report H. R. Bill No. 972 “To provide for the appointment of dental surgeons for service in the U.S. Army.” The Surgeon General’s indorsement (Jan. 16, 1900), reads as follows: “Respectfully referred to the Honorable, the Secretary of War, recommending approval of this bill. The large number of troops in the Philippines and elsewhere, where the services of competent dentists can not be secured, makes it desirable that the Government should make a reasonable provision for the emergency dental work required by officers and enlisted men of the Army[”] (S.G. 2486-165). A similar bill (Senate Bill 4044) was referred to The Surgeon General for remark on April 7, 1900, and his indorsement was the same as for H.R. 972 (S. G. 2486-170). These bills were not enacted in law.

The following comment on H. R. 972 is extracted from the editorial columns of the Dental Cosmos, January 1900:

Dental Surgeons in the Army and Navy

 “The committee appointed at the last meeting of the National Dental Association to secure legislation favoring the creation of a corps of dental surgeons in the army and navy have, after due consideration of the interests involved, formulated a plan which has been embodied in a bill designated as H.R. 972, which on December 5, 1899, was introduced into the House of Representatives by Mr. Otey.

The full text of the bill is published elsewhere in this journal. It will be seen that the basis of the arrangements is that these shall be made as contract appointments under the terms and conditions applicable to army contract surgeons, and in the ratio of one dental surgeon to every one thousand of the army. It will be remembered that the basis of appointment asked for by the Hull bill at the last session of Congress was radically different, in that under the Hull bill its was proposed that dental surgeons should be commissioned officers.

The present effort to have dentists appointed as contract surgeons may, and in fact has already aroused criticism from


those who believe that the position of contract surgeon is one lacking in military dignity, and consequently one which will not demand the respect of the men in the service.

It would naturally be flattering to the attainments, if not to the vanity, of the dental profession to Obtain recognition by the government to the degree that the appointment of dentists as commissioned officers would imply; and there can be no doubt that such a basis of appointment would carry with it more dignity and weight; but let it be remembered that the main ground upon which the plea for the appointment of dentists in the army service has been made by the dental profession is the humanitarian one of the desire to relieve the sufferings endured by those in the defensive service of the country by reason of their inability to secure dental services when needed. If the humanitarian motive is the real animating purpose of our demand we should be naturally content with the appointment of dental surgeons on a contract basis, for the reason that their rank in the service will in no wise affect the humanitarian character of the work, for which let us hope they are to be appointed.

Still another reason why the present movement should be supported is that the committee in charge of the matter have given the whole question the most careful consideration, are thoroughly conversant with the conditions to be met, and above all have a clear conception of just what is reasonable, to expect under existing conditions; the Otey bill, H. R. 972, is the crystallized result of their deliberations. There is good ground for the belief that what is asked for in the bill alluded to can be obtained, more cannot, as was demonstrated by the defeat of the Hull bill, which aimed higher and failed of accomplishment.”

 * * *

On December 6, 1900, when the House was considering Senate Bill 4300, An Act to increase the efficiency of the permanent establishment of the United States, Mr. Otey (Va.) introduced an amendment containing the provisions of H. R. 972, which was finally accepted and became the original law providing for dental surgeons in the Army on approval of the Act February 2, 1901 (Page 97, Cong. Rec., Dec. 6, 1900).

The amendment introduced by Mr. Otey is quoted in the following extract:



General Orders,)                                             HEADQUARTERS OF THE ARMY,

                         )                                               ADJUTANT GENERAL’S OFFICE

        No. 9.        )                                              Washington, February 6, 1901.



The following act of Congress is published for the information and government of all concerned:

An act to increase the efficiency of the permanent military establishment of the United States.

 Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled,

 * * *

 Provided, That the Surgeon-General of the Army, with the approval of the Secretary of War, be, and he is hereby, authorized to employ dental surgeons to serve the officers and enlisted men of the Regular and Volunteer Army, in the proportion of not to exceed one for every one thousand of said Army, and not exceeding thirty in all. Said dental surgeons shall be employed as contract dental surgeons under the terms and conditions applicable to army contract surgeons, and shall be graduates of standard medical or dental colleges, trained in the several branches of dentistry, of good moral and professional character an(l shall pass a satisfactory professional examination: Provided, That three of the number of dental surgeons to be employed shall be first appointed by the Surgeon-General, with the approval of the Secretary of War with reference to their fitness for assignment, under the direction of the Surgeon-General, to the special service of conducting the examinations and supervising the operations of the others; and for such special service an extra compensation of sixty dollars a month will be allowed: Provided further, That dental college graduates now employed in the Hospital Corps who have been detailed for a period of not less than twelve months to render dental service to the Army and who are shown by the reports of their superior officers to have rendered such service satisfactorily may be appointed contract dental surgeons without examination.

* * *

 Approved, February 2, 1901.



Adjutant General.


In connection with these records it is interesting to note that as early as 1895 the dental profession recognized the value of the Army Medical Museum and Library as a store-house of dental literature and museum specimens and recommended (1897), in the interests of public health, the employment of a dental pathologist in the Museum at Government expense.

The following is taken from a report of Transactions of the Annual Session of the American Dental Association (1895)

“The following were adopted during the sessions:

Offered by Dr. Mark F. Finley:

Resolved, that this association formally adopt the Army Medical Museum and Library as the National Museum and Library of the dental profession of the United States.

Offered by Dr. Wms. Donnally:

Resolved, that a committee of five be appointed by the chair to cooperate with the Army Medical Museum and Library Managers in enriching its stores of dental literature and museum specimens, especially by appealing to dental societies and individual members of the dental profession for material assistance.” (Dental Cosmos, Vol. 37, Pg. 786).

On August 5, 1897, the Committee on National Dental Museum and Library made a report to the National Dental Association through its Chairman, Dr. Donnally, which concluded as follows:

“Resolved, that the Committee on National Dental Museum and Library be authorized by this Association to seek, in the interest of public health, the employment, at Government expense, in the Army Medical Museum and Library, of at least one dentist of eminent fitness, whose time, when so employed, shall be devoted exclusively to the advancement of dental science.”

“The report and resolution were adopted” (Transactions Am. Dent. Assn., 1897, S.G.O. No. 161443).


Under date of Nov. 6, 1897, The Surgeon General’s records show that Dr. Donnally referred the above resolution to the officer in charge of the Museum and Library and that the latter wrote The Surgeon General that he favored the wish of the American Dental Association, that he believed it would be greatly for the benefit of the Museum and for the dental profession generally. The Surgeon General instructed the officer in charge of the Museum and Library to prepare a draft of letter to the Secretary of War, for signature of The Surgeon General, urging the appointment in the Museum of a specialist well versed in the anatomy, physiology and pathology of the teeth, at a salary of $2,000 per annum.

As a result of this action the following letter was written by The Surgeon General to the Secretary of War:

Dec. 9, 1897. To the Honorable the Secretary of War, Sir: The thirty-fifth Annual Meeting of the American Dental Association, in line with other national associations of specialists, adopted a resolution formally recognizing the Library of the S.G.O. and the Army Medical Museum as the National library and museum of the dental profession of the United States, and appointed a committee to cooperate with the officer in charge of the Library and Museum ‘in enriching its stores of dental literature and museum specimens.’

“This resolution making the Library of the S.G.O. and the Army Medical Museum the place of deposit of contributions from the dental profession of the country was favorably considered, and a department of normal and morbid anatomy and physiology of the teeth has been organized.

“Quite a number of valuable and interesting contributions have already been made to the Museum, and the Library has been increased by donations of books, essays, and journal literature pertaining to the subject of dentistry.

“Through. the chairman of the committee of the American Dental Association having this matter in charge, I am informed that it is the wish of the above Association to have attached to the Army Medical Museums specialist, well versed in the anat-


omy, physiology and pathology of the teeth, who shall receive, prepare and properly place on exhibition such specimens of morbid and normal anatomy and pathology pertaining to the oral cavity as may be contributed to the Museum, and who may, also, be charged with the preparation of models and apparatus used in mechanical dentistry, for the purpose of illustrating surgical and dental procedure in treatment of deformities and diseases of the mouth and teeth.

“I would respectfully state that I am heartily in accord with this desire of the American Dental Association, and would strongly recommend that Congress be asked for an annual appropriation, not to exceed $2,000, to procure the services of a competent specialist, well versed in the anatomy, physiology and pathology of the teeth, to be designated as Dental Pathologist to the Army Medical Museum.

“That such an appointment would be of the greatest value to the dental profession and to the general public, is beyond question, and it would do much to place the profession of dentistry fully within the line of attainments and advancement of the general science of modern medicine and surgery, by the exact determination of the anatomy, histology, pathology, physics and dynamics of so important a part of the human system as the mouth and teeth, as well as affording a ready and most valuable means of instruction to the dental profession, to teachers, students and investigators.”

The matter was referred, through proper channels, to House Committee on Military Affairs and ordered to be printed January 11, 1898 (Doc. 210, H.R. 55th Cong., 2nd Session).

The proposition failed at that session and on August 22nd, 1898 The Surgeon General advised Dr. Donnally by letter that he would renew his recommendation for the employment of a dental pathologist for the Army Medical Museum to Congress at its next session (S.G.O. 2486).

On June 14, 1899, The Surgeon General wrote, in reply to a letter from the President, Tennessee Dental Society, on the same


subject: “ * * * that efforts have been made during the past two sessions of Congress, but without success, to have a Dental Pathologist provided for the Army Medical Museum in this city. It is quite probable that the matter will be again presented to Congress at its next session.” (S.G.O. 2486-148).

(To be continued)

(Note: This is the first of a series of articles on records pertaining to the Army dental service. Subsequent articles will continue the record and bring it up to date. The object of these articles is (1) to inform dental officers of the development of the dental service; (2) to stimulate their interest therein and (3) to provide a reservoir of information concerning the dental service.

Comments and suggestions for the improvement of these articles are invited. W.D.V.).