Story: Dental care
Page 3 – Wartime and state-supported dental care
New Zealand Dental Corps
The inspection and repair of the teeth of New Zealand Defence Force volunteers in 1914 highlighted the nation’s poor dental health. The New Zealand Dental Corps (NZDC) was formed in 1915 to provide dental treatment in camps to members of the Defence Force. Other duties included using dental records to identify disfigured war dead.
The magic dentist
Captain Harold Dover was a dentist who served at Guadalcanal during the Second World War. He was also the president of the Wellington Society of Magicians, and was often called on to entertain the troops. His hardest audience was a surly detachment who were long overdue for home leave. He won them over by producing a cold can of beer from an empty roll of paper and ‘other impossible places’.1
The involvement of dentists and dental mechanics in active war service, including Henry Pickerill, dean of the New Zealand Dental School, enhanced the prestige of dentistry and demonstrated the value of public dental-health programmes. After further active service in the Second World War, the NZDC became the Royal New Zealand Dental Corps in 1947.
The leader of the NZDC, Colonel Thomas Hunter, returned from war in 1918 determined to move the focus of dentistry from extraction to restoration and prevention of decay. As director of the new division of dental hygiene in the Department of Health, he successfully advocated the establishment of the School Dental Service in 1921 to treat primary schoolchildren.
In the 1920s the Department of Health began an advertising campaign to encourage healthy eating and personal dental care, utilising posters, exhibitions at agricultural shows, health weeks and lectures. The campaigns continued into the 1960s, increasingly using radio, film and television.
Welfare state initiatives
The election of a Labour government in 1935 and the passing of the Social Security Act 1938 led to general improvements in access to health care, including dental-health care. From 1937 milk was provided free in schools, to supply calcium for teeth as well as improve children’s nutrition generally.
By 1947 dental care was provided free to students up to standard six (year eight), and a government-subsidised scheme staffed by new dental graduates was established to treat the teeth of adolescents up to age 19. This was later lowered to 16.
Dr Muriel Bell fought for the fluoridation of Auckland’s water supplies. She was opposed by the mayor, Dove-Myer Robinson – but succeeded in her campaign. As a result of her battles, she referred to herself as ‘Battle-axe Bell’.
Despite strong support from dentists and the Department of Health, the addition of fluoride to public water supplies to strengthen teeth was a contentious issue.
The 1957 Royal Commission of Inquiry into Fluoridation noted public concerns about the additive’s medical effects, a desire to maintain ‘pure’ food and drink, and the possible infringement of civil liberties and individual freedom. Fluoridation became an issue for local councils, to be decided by referendum.
In 1978, 54% of New Zealanders had fluoridated water, including in all major centres except Christchurch. Tooth decay in those areas lessened. In the 2000s fluoridation continued to be a volatile political issue despite adverse health effects being unproven. In 2007 more than 60% of New Zealanders lived in areas with fluoridated water supplies. Fluoride was also available in tablets and toothpaste.