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The New Zealand Dental Services

PDO Papakura Mobilisation Camp to DDS, 9 September 1940:

page 94

PDO Papakura Mobilisation Camp to DDS, 9 September 1940:

A course of lectures and demonstrations has been arranged starting tomorrow, 10 September, for mechanic's orderlies. The four at Papakura are showing considerable aptitude for the work and I feel confident that with extra tuition it will not be long before at least two of them will be in a position to be used as junior mechanics.

In six months two of them were so appointed. They were not by any manner of means dental mechanics, but they had a working knowledge of all branches of denture construction as carried out in the army prosthetic laboratories and the opportunity to learn more. Of those trained in this way some fell by the wayside, but others served as dental mechanics in New Zealand and overseas.

This method of training was somewhat haphazard as it was not always possible to get dental officers and senior mechanics willing, or even competent, to act as satisfactory teachers. In 1943, therefore, schools were started for the specific purpose of training mechanics and dental officers appointed to devote their whole time to it. On 1 March 1943, Captains P. B. Sutcliffe and C. H. M. Brander1 and Lieutenant K. P. Tompkins2 became prosthetic officers and instructors at the mobilisation camps at Papakura, Trentham and Burnham respectively. Similar action was taken in the RNZAF when Captain O. M. Paulin was appointed on 18 March to Whenuapai Air Station.

Men and women were given a course of approximately twelve months and then sat an examination. An exception was made for trainees with previous experience who were allowed, on the recommendation of the officer commanding the school, to sit the trade test without completing the syllabus.

The candidate had to get 70 per cent marks in the technical syllabus and produce a certificate from the officer commanding the school as to his readiness for examination before being allowed to sit the test. Those not recommended were either deferred for six months or transferred to other duties as unsuitable and unlikely to qualify. There were two examiners, one being the PDO of the camp dental hospital to which the school was attached and the other was appointed by the DDS.

On passing, the successful candidates were given provisional standing as ‘B’ grade dental mechanics, NZDC, and were sent to other camp dental hospitals for a further three to six months' training. At the end of this probationary period they were given the full status of ‘B’ grade dental mechanics, NZDC, without further examination, providing the report of the officer commanding the prosthetic school was satisfactory.

There was one danger in the scheme of which the DDS was fully aware. After the 1914–18 War, dental mechanics who had served page 95 with His Majesty's Forces were given the opportunity by the Government, in the face of expert advice to the contrary, to qualify and register as dentists by a shorter and less arduous route than that of the customary dental degree or certificate. This precedent was used as a lever to persuade the Government to take similar action in this war. Certain mechanics in the NZDC in New Zealand and the Middle East were misguided enough to avoid the usual channels of communication and write direct to two Cabinet ministers on the subject. Their unorthodox approach was unfortunate for their cause, as it invited disciplinary reprisals, alienated any sympathy their officers might have had for them and sharpened the inevitable refusal. The Corps, while urgently needing mechanics and willing to train them as such, did not intend to allow them to make similar mistakes through lack of a proper understanding of the limitation of their qualifications.

A statement to the press from the annual conference of the New Zealand Dental Association held in Dunedin in September 1946, although made for the purpose of informing the public of the dangers contained in a petition to Parliament from dental mechanics seeking the right to practise prosthetic dentistry without proper training, so aptly sums up the situation that it is quoted here:

The construction of dentures for the replacement of the natural teeth demands an intricate knowledge of many basic medical and dental subjects other than technical procedures and we wish to correct any public misunderstanding which may exist regarding the capability of anyone other than a fully-qualified dental surgeon to undertake the work.

The scheme of training appeared to be satisfactory, but unfortunately it was started so late in the war that by the time the first trainees gained their full status as ‘B’ grade mechanics, there were signs of a general retrenchment and the fledglings were never tested in full flight. Judging by the comprehensive nature of the course and the interest shown in it, the scheme was of sufficient value to recommend its adoption early in a future war. Even with the advances made and being made in preventive dentistry, it is difficult to visualise a force of New Zealand troops with less than half wearing artificial dentures of some kind.