By Mike Case
The U.S. Navy Dental Corps is made up of more than 1,300 dentists and oral surgeons responsible for maintaining the oral health and readiness of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps.
They are a key component of the Navy’s healthcare system, deploy with Marine Expeditionary Units and are stationed on aircraft carriers, hospital ships, labs and clinics around the world. Navy dentists are also a part of disaster relief and humanitarian efforts in local communities in the U.S. and overseas. Even if you have never been treated by a Navy dentist, or even knew that the Navy has dentists, you’ve probably benefited from their work!
In celebration of the Navy Dental Corps’ birthday on August 22, take a bite out of these historical facts about the corps’ history and learn about what it is doing today.
The Beginning of Dental Care in the Navy
Before the Dental Corps, tooth care in the U.S. Navy was ad hoc at best. A small number of hospital stewards with varying degrees of dental training provided most of the care, although many sailors received little to no attention. So, to improve and formalize care, Congress authorized the establishment of the Navy Dental Corps on August 22, 1912.
Fun fact: historians still debate on who was the first Navy dentist. Officially, the title belongs to Dr. Emory Bryant, the first head of the Navy Dental Corps, although a few other men - namely, Dr. Thomas Oliver Walton and Dr. Harry Edward Harvey - are also contenders for the title, depending on the requirements.
Shortly after the Dental Corps founding, three important events shaped the beginning of formal dentistry in the United States Navy:
- March 5, 1913 - The first dental officer, Assistant Dental Surgeon H.E. Harvey, was a assigned to a ship, the USS Solace.
- April 27, 1913 - Assistant Dental Surgeon James L. Brown became the first dental officer assigned to an overseas base – Naval Station Guam.
- August 4, 1913 - The first dental officer, Assistant Dental Surgeon Lucian C. Williams, was ordered to Marine duty and headed to Parris Island, South Carolina.
Navy Dental Corps in World War I
A few short years later, in April 1917, the U.S. entered World War I with just 35 dental officers. By the war’s end, there would be 500.
Despite its short history, Dental Corps sailors served admirably in the war and two navy dentists earned the Medal of Honor for extraordinary heroism. One of the Medal of Honor recipients, Lt. Weeden E. Osbourne, became the first naval officer killed in land combat during WWI and has a ship, the USS Osbourne, named in his honor.
After the war, in 1923, the Navy established a dental school to formalize the training and education of its dentists. During this time, Navy dependents also began receiving care from corps dentists.
However, just a few years later, in 1932, the corps drastically decreased its size and closed the school due to the Great Depression. However, as political tensions rose in Europe throughout the decade, it wouldn’t be long before the U.S. once again needed a robust Dental Corps.
Innovating in World War II
At the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, there were about 800 Navy dentists. By the end of World War II there would be more than 7,000.
(Side note: Sadly, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Naval dentists were called upon to use dental records to help identify about 80% of causalities)
During World War II, the Dental Corps and its re-opened school were involved in many firsts and innovations, including the development of a new technique for producing acrylic, plastic, prosthetic eyes (before then, prosthetic eyes were made of glass and produced in Germany). The Dental Corps also produced and deployed the first mobile, self-contained operating units to bring dental care to isolated areas.
Service women also made strides in the Dental Corps during WWII. WAVE Ensign Jessie Rathbone became the Navy’s first dental hygienist in 1943. Lt. Sara Krout became the Navy’s first female dentist in 1944.
Navy Dental Corps in Korea, Vietnam and Today
After WWII, Navy dentists continued to innovate throughout major global conflicts.
During the Korean War, Navy dentists performed front line dentistry for the first time. As Marines shifted from amphibious landings to inland operations, Navy dentists learned to perform procedures in trucks and in Quonset huts.
In the mid-1950s, the Naval Dental School also developed new, modern dental tools and contributed to the “high-speed revolution” with the introduction of the air turbine dental drill. This significant improvement in dental instruments benefited military and civilian dentistry around the world.
(Fun fact: The prototypes for these new, high-speed dental instruments are now part of the collection at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.)
During the Vietnam War, the Dental Corps continued providing front line dentistry to members of every military branch and, for the first time, on a significant scale to local civilians with little to no access to dental care.
Throughout the 20th century, the Dental Corps continued to distinguish itself.
On October 23, 1983, when the Marine Corps barracks in Lebanon was bombed, Dental Corps Lieutenants Bigelow and Ware triaged the wounded along with surviving hospital corpsmen, treating dozens of casualties. The two officers received Bronze Stars for their efforts following the bombing.
Today, the Navy Dental Corps continues to deploy onboard ships and on the ground alongside sailors and Marines wherever they are needed.
Sources used in this article:
The Dental Corps of the United States Navy A Chronology 1912-1962. Department of the Navy Bureau of Surgery and Medicine 1962
A Brief History of the US Navy Dental Corps. Department of the Navy Bureau of Surgery and Medicine
-This story was first published on USO.org in 2019. It has been updated in 2020.
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