During the Civil War, the United States Army’s interest in the oral hygiene of its troops boiled down to a single issue: Did they have enough teeth in the right locations to chew incredibly tough food and to tear open the cartridges containing the gunpowder and bullet for their muzzle-loading rifles? These “standards” are found in Dr. Roberts Bartholow’s Manual of Instructions for Enlisting and Discharging Soldiers, which said newly volunteered or drafted Soldiers should be rejected if they suffered from a “loss of a sufficient number of teeth to prevent proper mastication of food and tearing the cartridge.”

This requirement had the unintended consequence of leading some Americans who wished to avoid combat service having their teeth pulled as a preemptive measure—a practice that grew to be common enough that some Army surgeons were told to not exempt from service any one “whose alveolar processes were not absorbed, or whose gums indicated that the teeth had been recently extracted.”

But the move to provide Soldiers with both dental care and access to oral-hygiene items such as toothbrushes and toothpicks was already gaining ground at the same time these seemingly hardhearted regulations were in place. In 1861, New York dentist William Roberts proposed that a “corps of dentists, or dental staff” be added to the United States Army under the purview of Army surgeons, and that a “Dental Department of the United States Army” be created to provide personnel and equipment to provide for the delivery of dental care and preventive treatment.

Roberts’ proposal did not garner much support, however, so he scaled it down in 1863, recommending the War Department simply authorize dentists to be able to practice in the field at their own expense (and ask reasonable rates in return); failing that, he said the Army should at least appoint a dentist and dental assistant to each brigade and give them rank and pay commensurate with other medical personnel.

The first indication that the Army was grasping the importance of dental health came in 1872, when a hospital steward named William Saunders was detailed by Special Orders to provide dental care for the staff and cadets at West Point (he had actually been providing dental care as part of his steward’s duties since 1858). In 1901, Congress authorized the Army to contract thirty dental surgeons, but it took two different events—the establishment of the Dental Corps in 1911 and the U.S. entry in World War I—for the service to see significant growth. In April, 1917, there were just 86 Dental Officers on active duty; by November of the same year, that number had exploded to over 4600.

Today, the Dental Corps operates under the authority of the Dental Command, which is headquartered at Fort Sam Houston and oversees five Regional Dental Commands. Officers must be practicing dentists, and can enter one of ten Areas of Concentration: four types of dentistry (General, Comprehensive, Public Health, Pediatric), Periodontist, Endodontist, Prosthodontist, Orthodontist, Oral Pathologist, and Oral/Maxillofacial Surgeon. The branch has three Military Occupational Specialties: Dental Assistant, Preventive Dentistry, and Dental Laboratory Technician.

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