Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Drilling Deeper into Historical Fact; or Who was the Navy's First Dentist?

Thomas Oliver Walton, DDS (1834-1900) served as an "Acting Assistant [Dental] Surgeon" at the U.S. Naval Academy from 1873 to 1879. Should he be considered the first Navy dentist?
BUMED Library and Archives

As we march toward the centennial of the Navy Dental Corps (on 22 August 2012) some may begin to wonder "who was the Navy’s first dentist?” Such a query seems fair and easily remedied by referring to the outstanding Dental Corps Anniversary book produced to mark the 75 years of Navy dentistry (in 1987) or Joseph Kane's Famous First Facts. Most sources will tell you that Dr. Emory Bryant holds the distinction of being the “first” Navy dentist. However, here in the Navy Medical History Office we feel the need to dig deeper into this accepted truth and offer you several other possible candidates who could arguably be considered the Navy’s first dentist.

Candidate 1:
The Naval Academy Dentist

Born 24 September 1834 in St. Mary’s County, MD, Dr. Thomas O. Walton was a graduate of the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery (1856). Soon after graduation Walton moved to Annapolis where he became one of its more prominent citizens. He lived on the corner of King George Street and Maryland Avenue just outside of what is now Gate 1 of the Naval Academy. Owing to his proximity to the Academy, many of his patients were in fact Navy midshipmen. What type of dentist was he? Apparently, he was an expensive one. In 1858, he received a letter of reprimand from Academy Superintendent George S. Blake on his practice of overcharging midshipmen for dental care. As Blake would write, “As I find that in several cases your charges for dental operations at the Naval Academy amount to more than the young gentlemen have due them. I would request that hereafter you do not allow them to incur a greater expense than five dollars for such attentions, unless they produce written authority to that effect from the superintendent.” Walton’s non-discretionary dental fees did little to sever his relationship with the Navy though. On 23 April 1873, Dr. Walton was appointed as an “Acting Assistant Surgeon” to the Naval Academy. The term “acting” refers to temporary appointments given to civilians and “volunteer” personnel. On 30 June 1879, Walton was honorably discharged as an “Acting” dental officer at the Naval Academy. Walton continued to services as a dentist to the Naval Academy, albeit from a purely civilian capacity, until 6 November 1899.

Candidate(s) 2:
The Hospital Steward Dentists

Even before the establishment of the Dental Corps, and not long after Dr. Walton’s tenure at the Naval Academy, the Navy saw trained active duty dentists in its ranks (albeit the enlisted ranks). In 1904, Edward Ewel Harris (1884-1933), a graduate of the Chicago College of Dental Surgery (1904), enlisted in the Navy Hospital Corps as a Hospital Steward. Dr. Harris continued to serve as a Hospital Steward performing dentistry exclusively until 11 August 1914 when he passed the examination to become an “acting assistant dental surgeon” in the U.S. Navy. Another Hospital Steward, Harry Edward Harry graduated from the Hospital Corps School of Instruction (Norfolk, VA) on 20 September 1905 and served at Navy hospitals Chelsea, MA, and Washington, DC. In 1912 he earned a DDS from Georgetown Dental College and was among the first individuals to take the entrance examination into the Navy Dental Corps. On 18 December 1912, he was one of four out of fifteen individuals to pass the examination. Owing to his placement on the alphabetical listing he is listed as the first active duty dental surgeon in the Navy. Dr. Harvey would later serve as the BUMED Chief of the Dental Division (equivalent to "Chief of the Dental Corps") from 1933 to 1940.

Candidates 3:
The District Dentists

Even though the Navy Dental Corps was not established by law until 22 August 1912, the first appointment did not take place until two months afterwards. On the 23rd and 24th October 1912, respectively, Drs. Emory Bryant (1866-1935) and William N. Cogan (1856-1943) were appointed as temporary Navy dentists or “Acting Assistant Dental Surgeons.” By 1912, both were already well-established dentists in Washington, DC. As a civilian dentist, Dr. Bryant's patient pool consisted of presidents, congressmen and ambassadors. Prior to entering the Navy, Dr. Cogan was the dean of Georgetown Dental School. Ostensibly, Bryant and Cogan were appointed to help select candidates for the first officers in the Dental Corps. Cogan and Bryant were ordered to “active duty” on the 30th and 31st of October 1912. Naval Registers list both as serving in the “Medical Reserve Corps” in 1912 and afterward 1913 as officers in the “Dental Reserve Corps.”

1. Blake to Walton. Naval Academy Correspondence. Superintendent Letters 9 November 1858 – 5 September 1860. #34. Naval Academy Special Collections.
2. Dental Corps Examining Board Records, 1912-1951. BUMED Library and Archives
3. The Dental Corps of the United States Navy: A Chronology, 1977-1987. The 75th Anniversary Committee, Inc. 1987.

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