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The New Zealand Dental Services


CIVILIAN dentists were examining and treating the volunteers for the First Echelon of 2 NZEF before their entry into the mobilisation camps. As far as it went it was an excellent scheme, but none knew better than the DDS that it could not survive the deluge of work soon to be expected. For this reason, he regarded it as only a stepping stone to the ideal of a fully staffed and equipped Army Dental Service. For this reason, also, he had spent hours of the time that could so easily have been devoted to his private practice in Auckland, in transforming his dream into a practical plan to be adopted in the event of war. Strings of official memoranda and explanatory personal letters adorn the files of the Territorial Dental Corps as a testimony to his enthusiasm and persistence. His plans duly arrived at Army Headquarters, but not for adoption as will be seen later.

On 17 September 1939 he arrived in Wellington to take up his appointment as Director of Dental Services on a full-time basis. His first efforts were directed to staffing the new Corps and providing stock and equipment for it. He was quickly to realise the gulf between the ideal and reality. There was a lethargy at Army Headquarters, if not an actual antagonism, towards establishing an adequate Army Dental Service. Working from a small box of an office, without a clerk or a typist, he began the fight again. Once more he had to explain the need for an Army Dental Service, to justify the provision of staff and equipment, to haggle over expenditure that the lessons of the last war demanded if the mistakes were not to be repeated in this. Knowing full well that his policy was correct and that eventually circumstances would force its recognition, he went ahead with his plans largely on his own initiative, accepting the kicks as an earnest of the halfpence to come.

The attitude of Army Headquarters is explained in the following memorandum to the Minister of Defence on the subject of dental examinations and treatment. Dated 8 September 1939, it was signed by the Adjutant-General and the Director of the Division of Dental Hygiene. It stated inter alia:

It is recommended that a reasonable amount of dental treatment should be provided in order to make the men fully fit. If this recommendation is approved, consideration should be given to the two methods by which such treatment may be carried out.

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Dental treatment after enlistment and concentration at mobilization camps.


Dental treatment after enlistment but prior to concentration at mobilization camps.

With regard to (a), this will entail the provision of:


An extensive dental hospital at each of the four mobilization camps. This would involve heavy expenditure in buildings and after the initial pressure of work had been overcome, would be much greater than the normal requirement of the camp.


Equipment for such hospitals. A large quantity of equipment would be necessary at the outset and in this case also the amount would be far beyond normal requirements. In addition, the equipment required could only be obtained from dental supply houses and it is known that sufficient stocks are not held by these. Importation of equipment or commandeering from civil dentists is the only alternative if equipment is to be provided at mobilization camps.


Staffs of dentists, dental mechanics and orderlies for each hospital. These would have to be brought into camp on a temporary basis and naturally will involve heavy expenditure.

With reference to (b), this course has none of the disadvantages outlined above. The treatment would be spread over the dental practitioners of the Dominion, thus making full use of existing facilities. The work could be carried out expeditiously and prior to the men going onto the Army pay roll. The men would arrive in camp medically and dentally fit and therefore able to proceed with their training without interruption.

It is therefore recommended that method (b) should be adopted.

The memorandum then outlined the procedure to be adopted under paragraph (b) and was approved by the Minister of Finance on 9 September. This is a remarkable document and deserves the closest scrutiny, for it is difficult to imagine a more fertile field in which to examine the political and military thought of the time.

The Director of Dental Services was, by his appointment, adviser to the Army on all matters connected with the dental treatment of the troops and had already submitted war establishments for the NZDC, plans for treatment and specifications for buildings. The memorandum was drawn up without consulting him. Advice was sought from the Director of the Division of Dental Hygiene, the head of a Government department dealing chiefly with the dental treatment of primary school children. It is reasonable, therefore, to assume that the plans of the Director of Dental Services were incompatible with the views of the army authorities and that they sought other advice. Acceptance of the suggestions in the memorandum without a struggle would have reduced the authority of the Director of Dental Services to that of a rubber stamp. Had they not collapsed under the weight of their own inaccuracies, Lieutenant-Colonel B. S. Finn would probably have slipped from the pages of this history.

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The 1914–18 War had shown the large volume of dental work that could be expected among the troops and the tremendous struggle the New Zealand Dental Corps had to cope with it all. This was surely enough evidence to discourage any civilian scheme for dental treatment. Dentists were working hard and could not be expected to give priority to army patients, and it would have been impossible to force them to do so. Also, some of them would have to be brought into the Army to train as dental officers for the forces overseas. Staffs of dentists, mechanics and orderlies would therefore still be needed. If the work was to be carried out ‘prior to the men going onto the Army pay roll’, the time for this to be done must be much longer than if the men were all congregated in camp. The mobilisation of the Division and its reinforcements must therefore be delayed to that extent.

Expense was stressed in the memorandum on two occasions in connection with buildings and equipment, but no comparison was made with the expense of operating the civilian scheme nor was a premium put on the greater efficiency of an Army Dental Corps, as proved beyond doubt in the 1914–18 War.

The statement that equipment was not available from the supply houses was not correct as the Director of Dental Services had submitted lists of equipment and stocks (together with prices) which were held ready for the purpose. The Assistant Directors in the three Districts had made full inquiries as to suitable non-expendable equipment for purchase, hire or gift in addition to that held by the supply houses. There were also seven field surgical panniers equipped to mobilisation standard. Some equipment was therefore available to start the Corps, although the machinery for obtaining further supplies was not perhaps as facile as it might have been. It must also be remembered that under the civilian scheme additional stock would be needed under less economic conditions.

The assertion that large dental hospitals would be beyond the needs of the camps after the initial pressure of work had been overcome was a guess wide of the mark. It showed a disregard of experience and was directly opposed to the considered opinion of the Director of Dental Services. A bad guess can be forgiven on the score of ignorance, but there was no such excuse in this case as there was ample evidence on which to form an opinion without recourse to guessing. It is therefore difficult to understand how an appreciation of the position so unrelated to the actual situation could have been given.

The result of this uncooperative attitude was that there was a serious check to the formation of the Corps on a war basis. In spite of it, however, the DDS went ahead with his plans, but every request had to be fought for and many ventures had to be launched on his page 23 own initiative without the blessing of official authority. It is quite certain that, if he had not been so sure of the rectitude of his cause as to be prepared to act first and argue afterwards, the New Zealand Dental Corps would not have amounted to much.

Such was the position in September 1939, with the DDS seeing clearly the large amount of work pending and, even more clearly, the difficulty in getting staff, equipment and buildings. It was known that a force of approximately 16,000 men was to be mobilised and sent overseas in three echelons, to be followed by regular reinforcement drafts. Men would also be needed for staffing the camps and for coastal defence and anti-aircraft batteries. The following notes were compiled at the time by the DDS to illustrate how the staffing position was approached. The ratio of dental officers to men was varied later, but the main principles give a much more realistic view of the whole situation than that of the memorandum quoted above: