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Many of Ontario’s dentists joined the First and Second World War efforts, both as soldiers and to provide dental services to the troops. (CREDIT: NATIONAL ARCHIVES)

First World War:

Dentists join the Medical Corps in Europe

Dentists performed thousands of treatments to ensure Allied soldiers were not distracted by toothaches and infections. (CREDIT: GEORGE METCALF ARCHIVAL COLLECTION CANADIAN WAR MUSEUM)

At midnight on August 4, 1914, Britain’s ultimatum to Germany demanding its withdrawal from Belgium expired. The British Empire, including Canada, was at war, allied with France, Russia, Serbia (and later the United States) against the German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires.

Few people believed that the war would last more than a few weeks; the Germans even thought their soldiers would be home before the autumn leaves started to fall. They were wrong. The First World War would last four terrible years, stunting the growth of civilization for a generation.

Afraid they might miss the action, Canada's young men rushed en masse to join the armed forces. Many of Ontario's dentists also joined that rush, enlisting in combat units as well as dental units. Military service was a new experience for most of them with the exception of a few who had joined the Canadian Militia before the war began. Each had received military training, along with the rank of honorary lieutenant and dental surgeon in the Medical Corps.

At that times, there was no designated Dental Corps, so the Medical Corps declared that dentists serving in the active militia dental service should be under their direct control. There were two downsides to this policy for dentists: the rank of honorary lieutenant and dental surgeon was junior to every other officer in the Medical Corps; and there were very few promotions for dentists despite notable records of service.

In 1915, several Ontario Dental Association members stepped up to contribute for the war effort when they were given the task of launching and operating a dental clinic to treat new recruits. Located on the Canadian National Exhibition grounds in Toronto, it was open seven days a week. The clinic played an important role in restoring the teeth and oral health of Canada’s soldiers so that they would be eligible to go off and fight. If they didn’t get a clean bill of dental health, many soldiers would not have passed the medical examination. An applicant’s teeth had to be in good order to join the Armed Forces and the loss or decay of 10 teeth would disqualify him.

The clinic also played a key role in the Canadian Dental Association’s push to form a separate dental branch within the military. Soon after the exhibition clinic opened, Militia Minister Sam Hughes made an official inspection of the grounds. A few weeks later, honorary lieutenants Edmund Grant and Richard Hull received an order to come to his headquarters in Ottawa to provide a report on the overall dental fitness of Canadian recruits. That’s where they learned the excellent work being done at the clinic was a key factor in Hughes’ decision to form the Canadian Army Dental Corps.


Canadian Dental Corps is organized

The Canadian Dental Corps, shown in 1939, was first formed to serve in the Second World War. (CREDIT: UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO FACULTY OF DENTISTRY)

With the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, the Ontario Dental Association acted again. At their annual spring meeting, members inspired others who hadn’t already enlisted to join the fight. Dentistry's contribution to the cause would be to supply sufficient men to staff the Canadian Dental Corps (CDC) and many of the ODA's most experienced members joined the Armed Forces.

Eventually, Canada formed 24 dental companies, comprised of 24 officers and 80 men, for each military district across the country. Three were assigned to the navy, 15 to the army, and six to the air force. Each consisted of a headquarters and clinical detachments, with each detachment staffed with a dental officer, a sergeant assistant and an orderly. As the war continued, men and women were recruited into the services; The CDC trained members of the Women's Royal Canadian Naval Service, Canadian Women's Army Corps and Royal Canadian Air Force (Women's Division) as dental assistants and clerks.

In September 1943, the CDC established a Technical Training Centre with 16 officers and 22 men. During the Second World War, the centre offered 116 courses to over 1,200 officers and men of the corps. At the Royal Canadian Air Force Station in Trenton, Ont., the CDC, in conjunction with the RCAF Medical Service, also conducted research projects on military dentistry.

The No. 1 Field Dental Company had left Canada late in December 1939 with the First Canadian Infantry Division, but as the war spread, additional dental detachments served in France, Iceland, Sicily and Italy. The Canadian Dental Corps grew to 1,562 dental officers with 3,725 enlisted personnel of whom 748 officers and 1,747 enlisted personnel served overseas. Before the war ended, 14 of those officers and 19 enlisted personnel were killed or had died in active service.

Today, the Royal Canadian Dental Corps continues the tradition of providing high-quality dental care at home and abroad for Canada’s Armed Forces.

This content was produced by the Ontario Dental Association. The Globe and Mail was not involved in its creation.
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