How Did Soldiers Used to Get Dental Care in the Late 1800s and Early 1900s?

Maintaining a healthy smile is crucial for overall well-being, and the importance of dental care cannot be overstated. With modern advancements in dental care, keeping your teeth healthy and happy is easier than ever. But it wasn’t always this easy – in the past, dental procedures were nothing short of a nightmare. 

One can’t even imagine what it was like for soldiers in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Dental procedures were practically medieval, with no pain-numbing agents present and painful tooth extractions made even the toughest soldiers cringe. Let’s explore how soldiers got dental care in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and how far we’ve come since then.

Dental Care in the Military (Late 1800s – Early 1900s)

Dental care is important, but imagine trying to keep your teeth healthy while on the battlefield in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Soldiers often faced unique challenges when it came to dental care, including limited resources and harsh conditions. 

Since technology wasn’t that advanced back then, many soldiers even relied on fellow soldiers for treatment of their teeth, and even this was done using materials like wax and wood. In case of minor fractures and decay, filings had to be done.  Metal fillings were used, but they were prone to cracking and leaking, leading to further dental problems among soldiers. 

However, what was even worse was the lack of attention to dental care in the military. Soldiers were expected to “deal with” the excruciating pain as there were bigger problems and combats that required their attention. As a result, poor dental care impacted the soldiers’ physical and mental health negatively. 

Primarily, teeth issues were extremely painful. However, they were also causing other systematic issues within the body, such as sudden rise in body temperatures, rapid heartbeat, low blood, and fever. Medical conditions like Ludwig’s angina, sepsis, and Cellulitis were also possible as a result of untreated abscessed teeth. 

Lack of proper dental care facilities also led to psychological issues. The pain would often cause excessive discomfort to the soldiers, leading to reduced morale and increased stress, affecting combat readiness. When the problems would get severe, many soldiers would go on a break resulting in decreased troop strength and potential strategic drawbacks. 

Formation of Dental Corps

In 1911, the National Dental Association proposed the creation of a dental corps within the military to provide dental care to soldiers. Initially, this proposal was rejected and got much resistance from the army on the grounds that  dental care should be the responsibility of individual soldiers or their unit commanders.  

In 1912, the Army Dental Corps was officially established comprising 30 dentists. Congress provided the approval for this under the Army Medical Department.  

Post 1912, dental care got extra attention from the military when dental check-ups and providing dental education to soldiers became essential. Several dental corps were created on military bases and deployed mobile dental units to provide care to soldiers in the field.

In addition to that, the military hired more dentists and dental hygienists to provide dental care to soldiers, including filling cavities and performing extractions. These actions led to an improvement in the oral health of soldiers and in return, it also led to an improvement in their performance on field. 

Access to Dental Care for Soldiers

Access to dental care began actively post the 1918s. However, there were still certain issues to be addressed. One problem faced by Dental Corps was the limited funds. Budget constraints meant not all soldiers could get dental care. Only the ones who had extreme issues were treated. 

Besides, since dental care was new in the military, it was not available everywhere. Particularly, soldiers stationed in remote areas had limited access to dental care, making it difficult to receive routine check-ups or emergency care when needed. To counter this issue, the military announced the use of military dentists as well as civilian dentists.

Military Dentists

Military dentists were mostly stationed at war zones. Soldiers faced different types of problems including fractured or broken teeth, jaw injuries, soft tissue injuries, and other dental infections. In addition to that, military dentists also taught the soldiers some of the best preventive measures for any further tooth infections. They were also required to treat the junior dentists so that they could also be stationed near to war zones allowing for better dental care to the soldiers. 

Civilian Dentists

As dental care became more accessible for soldiers, the military also approved civilian dentists to perform checkups on soldiers. Often, the military had to take the services of civilian dentists because there were quite few military dentists. Besides, some dentists also volunteered their services to the military during times of war to care for the deprived dental care needs of soldiers in the field.

Dental Care in Different Locations

Dental care was more accessible for soldiers in established military bases. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, Fort Bragg, Fort Sam Houston, and Naval Station Great Lakes were some of the most important military bases in the USA where dental care was present. Dentists were also stationed during wars, such as the Philippine-American War, World War I, and The Mexican Revolution. World War I was one of the most important moments since the dentists were posted on the front lines of the war in Europe. 

Techniques and Tools Used for Dental Care

Initially, dental care for soldiers was difficult and painful, despite the availability of dentists. The main reason was lack of proper equipment, techniques, and tools used for dental care. Let’s undergo a few procedures performed by dentists during that time.

Extraction of teeth

Picture this: you’re a soldier in the early 1900s with a throbbing toothache that has been keeping you up all night. You finally get the courage to go to the dentist, only to find out that the procedure to fix your tooth involves forceps and pliers, with no anesthesia to ease the pain. Well, this was the reality for soldiers during that time. 

The extraction of teeth was an excruciatingly painful procedure that often left soldiers with a fever and mood disorders that lasted for days. Besides, there was also a major chance that the gums and surrounding tissues would be infected, if the pliers and forceps were not used properly. Seeing this problem, and the falling morale of the soldiers, the idea of dental corps took rapid attention from the military. 

Use of Dental Amalgam for Fillings

In case a tooth is not majorly infected, it can most likely be treated with fillings. During the late 1800s to early 1900s era, dentists used dental amalgam for fillings. These fillings were made Amalgam by combining silver, copper, tin, and mercury, which resulted in a material that could withstand the harsh conditions faced by soldiers on the battlefield. 

However, a common drawback of these fillings was that they were prone to leaking. Moreover, the items used in the amalgam, such as mercury, were indicative of affecting human health including different types of neurological and renal problems, as well as autoimmune disorders. Ultimately, the dental amalgam wasn’t a permanent fix but it was still ”something better than nothing”.  Materials like gold and porcelain were also added to the dental amalgam. 

Use of Chloroform and Ether as Anesthetics

Chloroform works as a numbing agent towards teeth and provides anesthesia to make different types of surgeries entirely painless. Chloroform and ether were the game-changers that allowed dentists to perform big operations such as tooth extractions without causing much pain to the patient.

Some sources suggest that chloroform and ether were first used as anesthetics during Spanish-American War and then, World War I. However, it is worth noting that both of these chemicals were not widely available and only a few soldiers could benefit from them. Post 1920s, from the formation of Dental Corps, anesthesia as well as other tools and equipment were made widely available.

Techniques for Cleaning Teeth

Upon formation of the Dental Corps, both military dentists as well as civilian dentists started to train the soldiers on techniques for cleaning teeth. The early 1900s relate to the basic dental oral hygiene only including brushing and flossing. However, later, soldiers were taught about gum cleaning, and spaces between their teeth. 

To maintain an optimal oral health, soldiers were taught about avoiding sugary food items as it could lead to tooth decay. Apart from that, Dental Corps focused on the aspect of identifying a problem before it becomes bigger. Soldiers were also given training on different types of dental problems, their symptoms, and when to seek the right treatment for any toothache

During periods of prolonged war, where proper dental care was not possible, soldiers were given different chewing gums. The purpose was to ensure saliva production and neutralizing acids in the mouth.

Quote – “Soldiers do not march on empty stomachs, and they cannot fight with poor teeth” – Major Charles H. Kelly, Army Dental Corps (World War II). This quote is another major example of how and why teeth health was so important for soldiers.

Challenges Faced by Soldiers for Dental Care

While the military started to increase its focus on dental care in the early 1900s, there was still some form of resistance by the soldiers. Many of them were simply too scared while others were having different types of stigmas associated with dental health aspects. 

  • Fear and anxiety about dental procedures – Since the soldiers were being treated without anesthesia for a long time, many of them had fears and anxiety by seeing their fellows. For this reason, they themselves would not indulge in any dental procedure even if it was necessary. Even when anesthesia was introduced, many soldiers were still not willing to undergo any dental procedure as they were so fearful of the pain. They thought that this would not work in any manner. In a nutshell, this fear was fueled by the lack of proper education and awareness about oral health and the importance of preventive care.
  • Lack of access to dental care in combat zones – Dental care facilities were established at major military bases all over the USA post 1912. However, the combat war zones were still an area where dentists were not sufficient. One of the main reasons for this was the limited road network to war zones. Since the combat zones were in remote areas, getting any form of supplies or personnel over there was very difficult. Furthermore, during major wars, there was a shortage of dentists as the number of troops and army personnel increased but the proportion of dentists didn’t match the demand.
  • Stigma associated with dental problems – The military culture has always dictated the element of toughness and competition. Therefore, many soldiers did not talk or treat their dental problems. Why? Because any one found whining and complaining would be insulted and termed as “weak”. For this sole reason, it is forecasted that thousands of soldiers compromised on their oral health and neglected it continuously. On the other hand, soldiers who would bear the pain and displayed an exceptional sign of resilience and toughness were termed as “strong men” of the battlefield. 

Conclusion

Soldiers all over the world faced a plethora of dental care issues which included painful treatment, future infections, and a long lasting pain even after the treatment. They were willing to keep the dental care issue with them because they were so scared and anxious about the pain. With the lack of dental care facilities established in the beginning of the 1900s, many soldiers could not even get access to any of those facilities. 

However, as time has passed by, there were several developments in the dental industry which have been useful for the soldiers too. Earlier, the soldiers were not having any idea about their oral hygiene but eventually with training, they were able to improve their oral health on their own. For example, regular brushing, flossing, and use of mouthwash were just a few of the many tips that helped the soldiers during the battlefield. 

Nonetheless, one should keep in mind that dental care is not just for soldiers. All of us must have the right diet, and take care of our teeth properly to ensure improvement in overall health and well-being. This approach will truly leave you “happily” ever after!