Like the other medical services, the U.S. military presents an extreme range of challenges and demands to the field of dentistry. Perhaps the greatest of those is simply that of volume. During both world wars and effectively overnight, the military’s dental units went from treating just a few hundred thousand to millions of patients – and scattered throughout the world. On top of that, for many of those patients the very first time they saw a dentist was after they had donned a uniform. The challenge of providing good dental care to a large member base located around the world continues to the present day. The Department of Defense (DoD), through the TRICARE health system, provides dental care for more than 1.8 million people, including 100,000 active duty servicemen and women stationed on bases all over the globe. Needless to say, it takes a special group of people to provide good dental care to such a large patient base, and under such a wide range of environments. Many adjectives have been used over the years to describe dentists. One that rarely – if at all – comes to mind is “heroic.” Yet it can be said that two dentists definitely earned the claim of hero: Lt. j.g. Weedon E. Osborne and U.S. Army Capt. Benjamin Lewis Salomon, the only dentists to receive the Medal of Honor.
Dentistry in War
Seven dental officers and seven enlisted dental assistants were killed in action, an additional 36 dental officers and enlisted assistants were wounded, and military dentistry had its first Medal of Honor recipient: Lt. j.g. Weedon E. Osborne.
When the United States entered World War I, the U.S. Army, itself a constabulary force of less than 200,000 troops, had a dental staff of just 86 officers, a ratio of roughly one dentist for every 2,350 patients. At war’s end on Nov. 11, 1918, the American Expeditionary Forces had swelled to more than 4.7 million troops and the Army Dental Corps had 4,620 dentists, 1,864 of whom were stationed in Europe. This worked out to a ratio of roughly one dentist for every 1,027 patients. The dental statistics are mind-boggling. From July 1917 to May 1919, 1,396,957 soldiers were treated for a variety of dental conditions. Dental officers provided 1,505,424 restorations, 384,427 extractions, 60,387 crowns, and 13,140 dentures. Seven dental officers and seven enlisted dental assistants were killed in action, an additional 36 dental officers and enlisted assistants were wounded, and military dentistry had its first Medal of Honor recipient: Lt. j.g. Weedon E. Osborne.
Born in Chicago in 1892, Osborne graduated from Northwestern University Dental School in 1915. Osborne enlisted in the Navy after the United States entered World War I and on May 8, 1917, was commissioned a lieutenant (j.g.) in the Navy Dental Corps. On March 26, 1918, he was assigned to the 6th Marine Regiment. Osborne was in the front lines during the Battle of Belleau Wood, assisting in helping the wounded. On June 6, 1918, in one of the bloodiest days of fighting in Marine Corps history, the Marines launched an assault that captured the village of Boursches. Osborne was again at the front lines. His Medal of Honor citation read, in part, “Lieutenant, Junior Grade, Osborne threw himself zealously into the work of rescuing the wounded. Extremely courageous in the performance of this perilous task, he was killed while carrying a wounded officer to a place of safety.”
The years following the end of World War I saw a significant reduction in the number of dentists in the military, reflecting the across-the-board manpower reduction that affected all the armed services. One of the more significant positive actions occurred in January 1938, when Congress authorized the rank of brigadier general for the Army’s top dental officer. Prior to that, the billet was a colonel rank. In 1947, Congress would raise the rank of the service’s top dental officer to major general, a rank that continues to this day.