In 1617 John Woodall, Surgeon General to the East India Company, produced details of the contents of surgical chests, which became regulation pattern for the Armed Forces. The contents included instruments for scaling, gum treatment and extractions; the importance of healthy teeth and the debilitating pain of toothache was clearly recognised. Between 1678 and 1865 a dental standard was enforced and infantrymen and grenadiers were required to demonstrate healthy incisor teeth necessary for biting open the paper cartridge cases and grenades. In 1857 army surgeons were requested by the Director General Army Medical Services to conserve teeth rather than extract them and instruments were provided specifically for this purpose, although somewhat inadequate.
At the outbreak of the Anglo Boer War there was no provision made for dental treatment for the armed forces. Over 2,000 men were evacuated back to the UK on dental grounds whilst almost 5,000 were unfit for duty in the field because of the lack of denture. The British Dental Association repeatedly approached the Secretary of State for War who, in 1901, appointed four contract dental surgeons for the force. In the years following the Boer War, dentistry was one of the subjects RAMC officers could be graded as specialists, only four were so graded and were never employed in their speciality so the scheme was abandoned.
In August 1914 facilities for dental treatment in the army were negligible, no provision had been made for treatment in the field and not one dental surgeon accompanied the expeditionary force to France.
In October 1914, during the Battle of the Aisne, the Commander of the First Army suffered severe toothache and found that no British dentist was available to give him treatment. A request was made to the War Office that dental surgeons were to serve in the army areas and 12 were sent to France in November with temporary commissions in the RAMC. Despite these and later commissions of dental surgeons, almost all treatment for soldiers in the UK was carried out by civilian practitioners, many of whom were not properly qualified. This did stop in 1916 and an Inspecting Dental Officer was appointed to the staff of Deputy Directors of Medical Services (DDMS). Progress was slow but a start had been made and by 1918 there were 850 dental officers of the RAMC.
Initially dental officers on the Western Front were allocated one to each Casualty Clearing Station, although they had no facilities for mechanical repair of artificial dentures and men were still evacuated to back to base. In May 1916 a motor dental laboratory was presented to the army and was such a success that eventually each of the five armies in France had one enabling greater facilities over a wider area.
A major development of World War One was the maxillo-facial surgery, pioneered by Sir Charles Valadier, Sir Harold Gillies and William Kelsey Fry. Horrific facial injuries were often caused by the nature of trench warfare with the head and face exposed to gunshot wounds and shrapnel injuries. At first Gillies and Fry worked at the Cambridge Military Hospital in Aldershot, although the Queen’s Hospital in Sidcup opened in 1917 specifically for facial injuries. The artwork of fellow surgeon, Captain H. Tonks, recorded many of these men before and after treatment.
The wastage of fit soldiers through lack of proper dental care during World War I highlighted the need for formal organisation and proper provision and the Army Dental Corps was formed on 4th January 1921. Dental Surgeons were initially granted a Short Service Commission of six years with the opportunity for selection to a permanent commission whilst servicemen joined for an initial engagement of seven years and went to the Army Dental Corps School of Instruction in Aldershot to train as Dental Mechanics or Dental Clerk Orderlies.
The interwar years had been a period of growth for the ADC as they firmly established their role and position within the life of the British Army. During World War Two the ADC expanded rapidly, in numbers of serving personnel, the number of Dental Centres in the UK and in the variety of courses and training available including general anaesthesia, dental prosthetics, dental radiography and maxillo-facial.
World War Two also saw the development of the Mobile Dental Unit, which consisted of a caravan trailer fitted out as a surgery and equipped on the same level as a Dental Centre and staffed by one dental officer and one Dental Clerk Orderly. The only difference was the lack of mains services, so they were fitted with accumulators for lighting, primus stoves for heating and had their own water supply in fitted tanks. The Mobile Dental Units proved to be invaluable.
Many ADC personnel were attached to field ambulances, casualty clearing stations or general hospitals and, like their RAMC compatriots, a substantial number became prisoners-of-war as they remained with the sick and wounded. In the Far East ADC prisoners often demonstrated considerable improvisation and ingenuity in providing equipment and treatment to fellow prisoners. In one camp in Singapore, hypnosis was used for tooth extractions, a rare practice in those days.
In 1946 King George VI granted the ‘Royal’ prefix to the Corps and a new cap badge was designed depicting the legend of Cadmus. According to Greek legend, Cadmus found a dragon had killed his soldiers so he slew the dragon with one blow of his sword when he heard a voice instructing him to extract the dragon’s teeth and sow them in the ground. Cadmus immediately obeyed. No sooner were the teeth planted then a crop of men sprang from the soil, fully grown and armed. It is also from this legend that the RADC take their motto, ‘Ex Dentibus Ensis’ (from the teeth a sword).
In 1948 the Depot and Training Establishment was formed at Aldershot providing the Corps with a permanent home, where it remains today. Trades were restructured and expanded and dental centres became better equipped as the 1950s brought advances in scientific techniques and materials.
RADC personnel, including many National Servicemen, served in post-war operations in Malaya, Korea, Kenya, Borneo and Cyprus. More recently personnel have been deployed to the Falklands, Iraq and Afghanistan.