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New Zealand Dentistry in the First World War

Jonathan Broadbent, PhD
Associate Professor of Preventive & Restorative Dentistry
Department of Oral Rehabilitation
University of Otago Faculty of Dentistry
New Zealand

About 10% of New Zealand’s population served during the First World War, and of those who served, over 40% were wounded or hospitalised due to illness. On top of this, nearly 20% of those who served died during the war. This was a defining and traumatic period for the young country of New Zealand. Dawn services are still held annually in commemoration of those who served and/or were killed during the war.

New Zealand’s dental profession was still fledgling at the time the country joined the war in 1914, and our first (and still only) dental school had opened just 7 years prior. The dental problems of military volunteers were noted very early on in the war (the New Zealand force that captured German Samoa in August 1914 included two dentists to deal with dental problems among the soldiers). By the end of the war, just over a third of all those who volunteered for military service and were otherwise fit to serve were deferred or rejected due to dental problems. Of those who were accepted, about 60% needed dental treatment of some kind. The problem was so bad that those with dentures (or ‘false teeth’) were often classified as having ‘good teeth’, and mouths were considered healthy when relatively few teeth were decayed.

A New Zealand Soldier Undergoing a Dental Extraction
A New Zealand soldier undergoing a dental extraction at the New Zealand Dental Corps hospital in Nielles, France, during the First World War. Photograph taken November 1917 by Henry Armytage Sanders [Image used with permission of Alexander Turnbull Library, ref 1/4-009512-G]

Going to war with dental problems is risky. The stress of the battlefield can exacerbate dental problems and render a person unable to serve. The term ‘trench mouth’ was coined during the First World War, and describes an acute gum infection that involves painful necrotising ulcers throughout the mouth. This condition can be brought on by stress, smoking, and poor oral hygiene – a trifecta that all-too-often occurred in the trenches. Other problems, such as dental abscesses, can arise suddenly and be very debilitating, taking a person out of action until the infection has resolved. Another problem was the breaking of dentures while eating tough rations such as hard tack, leaving a soldier without chewing power. Dental technician services were in demand throughout the war for repair or replacement of dentures.

Recognition of these problems led the New Zealand Dental Association to lobby for an independent military dental unit. This was established in 1915 as the Royal New Zealand Dental Corps (a unit which still exists today). Under the operational leadership of Lt Colonel Thomas Hunter (later Colonel), the personnel of the NZ Dental Corps reportedly placed over 200,000 dental restorations and extracted nearly 100,000 teeth by the end of the war. This involved treating soldiers at the time of recruitment as well as providing dental services while on deployment. The dental services offered by the NZ Dental Corps during the First World War are said to have been comprehensive and well organised, to the envy of some other allied armies (and the New Zealand Dental Corps also assisted the Australians and British). Dental care was offered in training camps in New Zealand, in the United Kingdom, and while on deployment in the various theatres of war. A dental clinic was opened at the Gallipoli landings in June 1915, treating 40 soldier patients in the first day. This dental clinic had a blanket roof which ended up being replaced with a roof of wood and iron after being pierced by shrapnel.

A New Zealand Soldier Fitted for a New Denture
The handwritten inscription on this photograph reads “Fitting a new denture. A perfect fit.” [Unknown photographer (1917) Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tamaki Paenga Hira., ref PH-ALB-419-H336 (no known copyright)]

Dental care became increasingly important as the war progressed, as pressure rose to keep up with New Zealand’s recruitment target of 2,000 recruits per month (a challenge for a nation of roughly 1,000,000 people). It became necessary to enlist volunteers and conscripts with poorer dental health in order to keep up with recruitment requirements. Some ancestors of the author of this essay served in the war. One great grandfather entered service in 1917 and was considered dentally fit. However, it was noted that his upper denture required remodelling and his lower teeth required extraction and a denture. His brother also entered service in 1917, and was considered dentally fit but required extraction of 14 teeth, placement of 9 fillings and an upper complete denture. A recent article published in the New Zealand Dental Journal reported on historical dental records from the war, and found that over 40% of those who were accepted for service during the last two years of the war (1917/1918) had ‘poor’ dental health at enlistment, compared to only 8% during the first two years of the war (1914/1915). It also became less common to record the dental health of recruits later in the war.

The New Zealand Dental & Medical Corps also became responsible for rehabilitation of soldiers who suffered wounds to the face and jaws. The first Dean of New Zealand’s national dental school at Otago University, Professor Henry Pickerill, took leave to operate as a maxillofacial surgeon with the New Zealand Medical Corps. Pickerill developed a number of pioneering surgical procedures to repair horrific injuries. He continued the work of rehabilitative surgery for injured veterans after returning to continue his post as Dean of the University of Otago Faculty of Dentistry.

Photograph of Wax Replicas of Wartime Facial Injuries
Photograph of wax replicas of wartime facial injuries, waxworks produced by Professor Henry Pickerill. These waxworks are in the collection of the University of Otago Faculty of Dentistry Historical Archive, image used with permission.

The dental problems of military recruits during the First World War served as a wake-up call for the dental profession in New Zealand. At the time, New Zealanders had what is said to be the worst teeth of any nation, even compared to less developed countries. To improve the dental health of future generations, a School Dental Service was established after the war, with the goal of preventing dental disease and treating it at earlier stages. New Zealanders now have much better dental health than in the past.

The dental health of New Zealand’s armed forces was a major problem during the First World War and the service of our past dental colleagues should not be forgotten.

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