Yesterday we celebrated Veterans’ Day, when we thank all our nation’s veterans for their efforts in the service of freedom. However, before it became Veterans’ Day, it was Armistice Day, celebrating the end of the First World War. For nations in the British Commonwealth, this day is still celebrated as Remembrance Day, and that makes it a fitting time to remember some of the remarkable dentists who helped care for the soldiers on the front line and at home.
You Need Teeth to Go “Over There”
Looking back to World War I reminds us just how much progress dentistry has made in the last hundred years. Young men aged 18 to 35 only had to have a minimum of 12 teeth to serve. Still, even this standard was fairly rigorous for the time, as about 24 out of every 1000 recruits was rejected for not having enough teeth! In the US, we developed a special denture to help soldiers serve (they could pass as 1B if they had good dentures to help meet the 12 teeth requirement). In Britain, standards were a little different, and many treatable dental conditions prevented soldiers from being eligible. When manpower needs became critical, the British Dental Association and numerous dentists volunteered to help get their tommies ready for the trenches.
Dentistry in Style
Although conditions at the front could be horrendous, some of the soldiers who suffered orofacial injuries got treated in high style, thanks to Charles Auguste Valadier. Valadier was a French-American who had trained as a dentist in Philadelphia and worked in New York for about a decade before moving back to Paris, where he was living when the war broke out. Eager to help, he volunteered to provide emergency dental care to soldiers on the front line. Initially assigned to a general hospital, he set up a dedicated clinic for jaw injury patients. Then he went one step further–he equipped his 1913 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost with a dentist’s chair in the back and drove it around the front to provide immediate care to injured soldiers.
That car was recently put up for auction, with an estimated value of nearly $1.3 million. Talk about a fancy dentist’s office!
Pioneering Reconstructive Surgery
Although some pioneers were on the front line, others helped soldiers after they returned home from the front. In Britain, dental surgeon James Frank Colyer helped restore the jaws and smiles of soldiers who suffered facial injuries. When actions were going on, the British suffered up to 60,000 casualties a day, and this meant that front-line reconstruction surgeries were often rushed and undertaken with whatever supplies were available. This included wires, plates, and whatever else might be used to splint a shattered jaw.
When they returned home, many of them were treated by Colyer, who treated infection, removed teeth in danger of becoming infected, and put the jaw in an optimal position for healing.
The Progress of Dental Care
It is partly thanks to the pioneering work of dentists during the First World War that dental treatment has reached its current height. We are proud of these dental leaders as we are proud of our veterans and hope to live up to their example.