August 22, 2017 will mark the 105th anniversary of the establishment of the Dental Corps of the United States Navy. But just because the Corps was not created until the second decade of the 20th does not mean that the Navy was either ignorant of or oblivious to the oral hygiene needs of its Sailors.
As early as 1853, the Secretary of the Navy wrote to the Surgeon General of the United States Navy inquiring whether he thought it was appropriate to demand that applicants to the Medical Corps should have a more thorough knowledge “of the science and practice of Dentistry.” In 1870, the Navy’s Surgeon General made the recommendation that an experienced dentist should be on the roster of permanent office at the U.S. Naval Academy, and in 1873 a U.S. Navy medical inspector noted that while it would probably be impossible to coax veteran Sailors into properly caring for their teeth, the younger crewmen (“boys”) should be required to purchase toothbrushes and use them on a regular basis.
The push for better dental care for Sailors became even stronger as the 19th century drew to a close. A bill was introduced into Congress on May 27, 1898 to establish a Dental Corps in both the Army and Navy, but failed to gain traction; similar legislation failed in 1902. But Surgeon General of the Navy Preston Marion Rixey, an ardent believer in the importance of adequate dental care who also served as the personal physician to Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt, would not give up the battle.
Finally, during the second session of the 62nd Congress of the United States, an act was passed that authorized the Secretary of the Navy to appoint up to 30 acting assistant dental surgeons, all of whom were required to have graduated from either a medical or dental college, to be part of the Medical Department of the Navy. The act further mandated that after three years, all those that had been appointed who had served for more than two years would take a professional exam to ensure they were fit to be commissioned in the Navy as Assistant Dental Surgeons at the rank of Lieutenant (junior grade). Additionally, the act gave the Secretary of the Navy the authority to appoint acting dental officers for temporary service “provided that the total strength of the Dental Corps shall not exceed the proportion of 1 to each 1,000 the authorized enlisted strength of the Navy and the Marine Corps.”
Today, the Dental Corps not only provides first-rate preventive and remedial dental services for hundreds of thousands of Navy and Marine Corps personnel, but also offers specialized care in such areas as maxillofacial prosthodontics, endodontics, oral and maxillofacial radiology, and oral pathology, to name just a few.