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The New Zealand Dental Services

Dental Officers

Dental Officers

There was no difficulty at the beginning of the war in finding enough dentists to volunteer for service in the Corps; in fact, more applied than could be immediately accepted. But, even in these early times, the action of volunteering did not mean acceptance, as the DDS demanded a high standard for the Corps, quite apart from medical fitness to stand up to the work. The dentist had to have high professional ability and be of good ethical standing, fit to receive the King's Commission. The Dental Corps was not going to be a dumping ground for profession failures or playboys. The needs of the civilian population also had to be considered and dentists could not be drawn into the Army from areas poorly provided with dental services.

The maintenance of a balance between civilian and military requirements was recognised as important by the Government, and in December 1939 the Minister of Health approved the setting up of a sub-committee of the Medical Committee of the Organisation for National Security to advise on this and other dental matters of national concern. Consisting of Mr J. L1. Saunders,1 Director of the Division of Dental Hygiene in the Department of Health, Lieutenant-Colonel Finn, and Mr O. M. Paulin2 representing the New Zealand Dental Association, the dental sub-committee held its inaugural meeting on 29 January 1940 in Wellington. By this time thirty-one dentists had received, or were about to receive, their commissions in the NZDC, so the first action was to ratify these appointments. This they did with the exception of Captain O. E. L. Rout who, they considered, would be better employed in his capacity as a lecturer at the Otago University Dental School.

At the beginning of the war there were 697 dentists on the New Zealand register. Twenty-five of these were in Government employment, at the dental school or in the island dependencies, so in the page 31 meantime were not to be considered. This left 672, of whom many, through age or ill health, were unable to serve with the military forces, but who might release younger and fitter men for service.

At this time all manpower for the fighting forces came from volunteers so the authority of the Organisation for National Security and its committees was limited. In the case of dentists the committee's main function was to see that the needs of the civilian population were not adversely affected by too many enlistments from the same quarter. To help it in deciding this, it asked the New Zealand Dental Association to appoint dentists in the various districts throughout the Dominion from whom recommendations could be obtained. Subject to this proviso, the selection of applicants was made by the DDS after careful inquiry into their suitability and the committee abided by his recommendations.

On 18 June 1940, however, the National Service Regulations were gazetted by Order in Council. By these regulations 22 July 1940 was made the closing date for voluntary enlistment, and thereafter men were called up by ballot both for overseas and Territorial service with the armed forces. Dentists were therefore liable to be called up as combatants either for overseas service or Territorial training, and the delicate balance between military and civilian dental requirements was in jeopardy. Exemption from combatant service could not be granted by the committee, but the National Service Department recognised the need for some degree of conservation of dental manpower. The department had what was known as a ‘Schedule of Important Occupations’, which was in the process of revision when this question was being considered. The Director, Mr J. S. Hunter, wrote to the Medical Committee on 2 September 1940 to the effect that while the postponement or reservation of a person drawn in a ballot was a matter entirely for the decision of a tribunal that was to be set up, certain recommendations for dentists and dental mechanics were suggested for inclusion in the revised schedule. No dentist would be released for Territorial training and if he was called up in a ballot for overseas service his case would be referred to the National Medical Committee, which included the dental subcommittee, whose opinion would be transmitted to the Appeal Board for consideration. The result was eminently satisfactory as the Appeal Board invariably acted on the recommendations of the committee.

The committee also recommended that those dental students who had completed one full year of professional study, i.e., who had completed the second year of their dental course, should not be withdrawn for military service but would be required to continue their professional studies.

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The result of this was that the DDS was able to select those dentists he needed for the Corps with a reasonable chance of getting them, and still had a free hand in rejecting unsuitable applicants, with a knowledge that they would not be withdrawn from the general dental pool. That the DDS was careful in his choice is shown by the very small number who turned out to be misfits. That his standard was high can be seen by the instructions given on many occasions to officers leaving to take up a command overseas:

You will remember that your first duty is to look after the men you command, then to equip yourself with the necessary military and specialist knowledge to make your branch of the service the most efficient section of the military organisation. Everything has been done to give you rank and status in the Force and it rests with you to build up from this with your own initiative and personal application a branch of the service that will function under all conditions presenting. It is up to you to live up to the ideals of your profession apart from inculcating into the minds of other branches of the force, by practical demonstration and propaganda amongst all Units, the importance of our specialist service and the essential part that dental health contributes to the mental and bodily health of the soldier.

With the strictest observance of Service Regulations and Procedure and the continuance of the loyalty and co-operation you have shown, so will the ‘Esprit de Corps’ be built up and the traditions of the New Zealand Dental Corps and your profession be upheld. Nevertheless do not forget that commissioned rank in the professional services is easily gained and the soldier who presents to you for treatment, of whatever rank, is deserving of all the consideration that you, as a professional man, can offer him, and he will get it and with good measure from the New Zealand Dental Corps.

The Corps owes a debt of gratitude to Colonel Finn for selecting his officers with such care and for constantly refreshing them with his own idealism. At one time in the war he was so desperate for dental officers that he was prepared to take them direct from graduation and train them at the camp dental hospitals. This was against his principles, and later when the supply improved he insisted that new graduates must have at least six, or preferably twelve, months' practical experience in the dental department of a public hospital. The wisdom of this is seen when troops are scattered over the country and dental officers have to work alone, supported only by their own initiative and professional experience.

Civilian requirements were assessed as one dentist to 2200, but in 1942, when general mobilisation had taken place and large numbers of dental officers were needed, the profession was asked to work at a ratio of one to 3300. It is interesting to compare the civilian figures with those of the 1914–18 War as computed by the National Efficiency Board. The ratio of dentists to population in 1914 was one to 2196, and in 1917 one to 2922. The difference in the ratio at the peak periods of the two wars can be attributed to the fact that in 1942 New Zealand was threatened with invasion and a large number of men were mobilised to protect the homeland, page 33 needing more dental officers in the armed forces and leaving fewer for civilian requirements. So serious was the position in 1942 that the dental sub-committee circularised the dentists advising them of the position and asking that they co-operate by modifying their plans for treatment, simplifying as far as possible all operative and prosthetic work while the emergency lasted. The general reaction to this circular was favourable as it was realised that some action was necessary if the interests of the civil and military population were to be safeguarded. There was some criticism, especially from a company providing certain services to the profession, on the grounds that their interests were being vitally affected, but the position was too serious for much notice to be taken of it.

The Germans apparently had the same difficulty in providing an adequate dental service for the civilian population. In May 1942 the following paragraph appeared in the dental magazine Oral Hygiene:

1 Col J. L1. Saunders, CBE, DSO, m.i.d.; Lower Hutt; born Dunedin, 1891, dental surgeon; Otago Regt 1914–18 (Lt-Col); twice wounded; comb 2 Inf Bde (Territorial Force) 1939–42.

2 Capt O. M. Paulin; born Dunedin, 14 Jul 1895; dental surgeon; NZDC 1918 and 1942–45; died Richmond, 14 May 1959.