A dental record

A soldier’s dental record reveals a story of national tooth decay that led to the formation of the School Dental Service. 

Dental History Sheet, LYNCH, William Henry WW1 11/71 – Army, 1914.

Dental History Sheet, LYNCH, William Henry WW1 11/71 – Army, 1914. Archives New Zealand. R10921324.

Context 

One hundred years ago, lots of men signed up to go to war. Most were in good physical health because hard work was a normal part of life. Unfortunately, their teeth were often in a terrible state. At the time, hardly anyone went to the dentist on a regular basis. Men with a lot of dental problems were sometimes excluded from enlisting because poor teeth could cause lots of problems for soldiers at war. 

This page is from William Lynch’s 1914 military record. It describes the condition of his teeth, which were treated when he was on a troopship heading to Egypt. 

The rest of William Lynch’s records show that the recruiters were aware of the state of his teeth before he left. They may have turned a blind eye to their condition because he was strong, keen, and had some experience in the Territorial Force, making him an ideal recruit in every other way. 

To increase the number of men eligible to enlist, the government set up the New Zealand Dental Corps in 1915. The extent to which poor teeth was an issue can be seen in the dental records from the Trentham and Featherston army camps. In one group of 1998 men, the 17th Reinforcements, dentists carried out: 

  • 6335 fillings 
  • 5237 extractions 
  • 854 dentures.  

Further dental work was also carried out on the troopships heading to war. 

Dentures could create issues for soldiers. Soldiers with dentures were told to keep them in their socks when they were on the troopships. This was to prevent them from losing their dentures overboard if they got seasick. 

The state of the soldiers’ teeth raised awareness in New Zealand about the importance of good dental hygiene. After the war, a decision was made to introduce free dental services to schools. School students were also given free milk, which helped to provide the calcium needed for healthy teeth. Another later response to the problem of poor dental health was the addition of fluoride to public water supplies. 

Key questions 

  • What can we observe? 
  • What do we already know? 
  • How might people view this dental record in different ways?

Possible discussion questions 

  • What does this record show? 
  • Why do you think so many people had bad teeth 100 years ago? 
  • How do you think people looked after their teeth 100 years ago? How could we find out? 
  • Why was it so important for the soldiers to have good teeth? 
  • What foods do you think the soldiers had access to in the trenches? Why might this have created other health issues? 
  • What do you think life was like in the trenches? 
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