Tuesday, January 08, 2008


I was talking to someone today about naval dentistry (no, not slang for a sexual act or an early 80s track by Frank Zappa (or both)) suddenly occured to me (just before lunch, funnily enough): what do sailors do when they're at sea and their teeth start rotting? By a weird coincidence, I actually bumped into someone a few minutes later who I knew had served in the navy.

"Well," he explained, patiently, "the larger ships carry their own dentists. If you've got 1500-2000 people on a ship (he'd served on an aircraft-carrier) then you need on-board dentists, or 'tooth-wrights' as we used to call them."

Tooth-wrights? What tha--?

"What about smaller ships?" I asked, now fascinated by the idea of naval dentists. "Presumably, they don't have their own dentist?"

"No, but they're not usually at sea so long and there's less crew members, so it's less likely to be a problem," he said, warming to the conversation. "If someone gets bad tooth-ache at sea on a smaller ship, they just dose them up with strong pain-killers until they get to port, which isn't usually that long."

So now you know.

Still, Naval Dentistry...apparently, there's a lot of career options open to you if you want to be a dentist in the Royal Navy. Tho I was kinda spooked by the thought that you could train up to be a Royal Marines Commando Dentist.

I tried to find out some info about the history of dentistry in the Royal Navy, as i was curious about how it had developed, what tools they'd used in the old days, etc...but came up with zilch. If anyone else has better luck researching this important topic, then please let me know.

The only thing I found was this account of a British Army Dentist's exploits during the Suez Crisis in 1956:

"I was a dental technician in civilian life and had my National Service deferred so that I could finish my training. I consider that I was very lucky to get put into the Royal Army Dental Corps and not into something quite unrelated like the Catering Corps.

A police car arrived at my house on Bank Holiday Monday, August 6, while I was on leave, to deliver an order that I was to return immediately to Aldershot Military Hospital where I was stationed.

The order was for me to report to an Army field ambulance where I was to make up the dental unit which comprised of a dental surgeon, a dental clerk assistant, and myself a dental technician.

After weeks of on/off activity we eventually left Southampton on a troop-ship sailing to where? We weren’t told, but we all knew where we were heading. We arrived at Port Said Friday, November 9, 1956.

Before disembarking on to a landing craft we were given a printed text which outlined why we were there and how essential the Canal was to the survival of the UK. Also an armband sporting a Geneva Red Cross. (This despite carrying a rifle!)

We also had a survival box to cover our needs for the first day or so. This comprised of emergency rations like chocolate, biscuits, a tube of condensed milk and, most importantly, a square of toilet paper. Several of the men had eaten their rations before they got off the ship.

We landed from a landing-craft like the ones used for the D-Day landings and we were all a bit apprehensive – half expecting to be met with a hail of bullets.

My initial reaction was one of shock I had not expected to see so much damage to property and much of it resembling bomb sites.

Our first night was spent in a shot-up school sleeping on stretchers. Those that had arrived before us with the first wave had broken into the cellars of a hotel and bottles of brandy were circulating. Many were a bit drunk.

The field hospital was set up in the Palace Casino Hotel. An hotel of fading glories not helped by shell holes in its walls and rows of bullet holes in the ceiling where the commandos had chased some poor devil along the corridor above.

When things had settled down a little, I, as a dental technician, was ferried out to a depot ship moored at the mouth of the now blocked Suez Canal. This ship had a well equipped dental laboratory and I was kept busy making dentures for many of the personnel of the field ambulance.

The RSM I remember wanted a new set of dentures and I suggested that it would help to make his false teeth less false-looking if I incorporated a gold filling into one of the denture teeth. He was taken with this idea and he set off to find a suitable piece of gold. This was not so easy and the best he could come up with was a 14 carat gold pen nib which I duly managed to build into his denture.

My overall impression and recollection of the enterprise was one of chaos. I can remember hearing that there was insufficient medical supplies, not enough bandages, no antibiotics and not enough transfusion blood.

Several of our dental patients from the unit had acute gum disease and much dental decay. Our dentist struggled manfully to treat as many as he could despite the poor dental equipment and surgery situated in what was left of the hotel’s hairdressing salon.

Strangely there was no obvious hostility towards us from the locals who just wanted to sell us watches, pens, leather goods and even take our photograph. I am sure some were pleased to see us back.

However, as we left Suez just before Christmas there was an enormous explosion as the statue of Ferdinand de Lesseps, the builder of the canal, was blown up."


At 6:49 pm, Blogger King Minotaur said...

'The Navy Surgeon’s Chest: Surgical Instruments of the Royal Navy During the Napoleonic War' by J.C. Goddard (Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, vol. 97, pp. 191-7) has a brief section on dentistry:

"The surgeon was also at this time obliged to perform any dentistry required. The poor diet of the sailors led to poor dental condition. Scurvy, although known to be preventable, was still not uncommon aboard. The tooth key illustrated in Figure 4A is a little younger than this period but would be of similar design. The gum lancet in Figure 4C was used for draining gum-boils as well as for therapeutic bleeding within the mouth."

I'm not sure if it's publically available online (I found it via PubMed), but if not - and you'd like to read the whole thing - drop me a line at bobby[underscore]peace[at]hotmail[dot]co[dot]uk.

At 7:44 pm, Blogger kek-w said...

Cool! Thanks, KM - this is great stuff, just what I was looking for...

Didn't think about cruising PubMed (which I used to do a few years ago when I was ill and used to check out research papers looking for info about my 'condition').

"Draining gum-boils" - wow. I'd forgotten about the lost art of draining boils (or abcesses as we'd probably call them now.) Jeez: what Naval Surgeons must've had to do back then...amputations, minor surgery, etc onboard ship...I guess voyages were a lot longer under sail, so the sawbones would've had to keep the crew alive under some especially nasty conditions....might research this a bit deeper when I've got a moment...

At 10:12 pm, Blogger doppelganger said...

Heh ... 'tooth-wright'

I love that old english term 'wright'... it has such a fantastic muscular quality to it..... robust craftsmanship and so on...

I think I'm gonna be a blogwrighter from now on.... forge those pages...

(great post BTW - more please)

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