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Fighting "Tooth & Nail"...LITERALLY!

Have you ever wondered about the origin of a particular phrase? You know, those ones we use without giving it a second thought: "Top dog"... "Use it or lose it"... "Give that man a cigar" (one we will explore in another post!)... "Fighting tooth and nail." Well, an "interesting" event occurred this week, which started us thinking about the role Dentistry has played on the battlefield in modern history!

The image this statue recreates has been counted among the MOST iconic photos of the 20th Century – a sailor in Times Square spontaneously celebrating VJ Day. This 1945 Alfred Eisenstaedt image has been solidly imprinted on the brains of multiple generations! Yet, just a few days ago, we saw a sad end to an era, when this sailor – George Mendonsa – died on Sunday, February 17, just two days short of his 96th birthday. 

No one, other than Mendonsa's family and friends, probably would have taken note of his passing, had he not happened to be at the right place, at the precise right moment, to be captured by a legendary photojournalist. However, there is ANOTHER interesting fact about this picture many people still don't realize!

When asked to describe this photo, most people say something about VJ Day, Times Square, the sailor... or the "nurse." Guess what, she wasn't a nurse... Greta Zimmer Friedman had actually been a DENTAL ASSISTANT! Her uniform simply led both Mendonsa – and the majority of people worldwide – to assume she was a nurse in the war. Not only did she represent the 340,000+ women who served in the war as pilots, nurses and in a surprising spectrum of positions, her profession as a Dental Assistant tangibly demonstrated another breakthrough during World War II. 

We can trace wars and battlefield tales as far back as any recorded history. And, many of our modern idioms owe their origin to those battles, such as the particularly-appropriate phrase "fighting tooth and nail." Observing the "weaponless" status of wild animals – who only have their teeth and nails to use in a fight – this phrase can be traced to several literary references of the 1500s. Yet, one of these key "weapons" had largely been ignored or undervalued on the battlefield until modern times... Dentistry!

In a rather comprehensive and surprising history of Dentistry's evolving role in the battlefield (, one first-hand account – augmented by extensive research – clearly details the evolving role of Dentists within the armed forces: 

"Following the Dentists Act of 1878 and the formation of the British Dental Association, some pressure was put upon the medical establishments of the Army and the Navy to improve the dental care of their men, but it was many years before the need was recognised. Dental disease was not then considered a problem by commanders. Little was done until dental disease was seen to have distinct military significance... Subsequently, in 1920, the Royal Navy Dental Branch was formed and in 1921 The Army Dental Corps. Dental treatment for the RAF was provided by the Army Dental Corps until the RAF Dental Branch was formed in 1930.

"At the start of the Second World War, additional dental officers were recruited in considerable numbers. Most were established on the larger bases or ships but all three services used mobile units in caravans to look after their smaller and more remote formations... In most cases the mobile units were supplied with field kits carried in panniers and they operated under canvas. Later, the RAF was fortunate to be equipped with prime mover mobile units: large Fordson trucks that operated in North Africa and Europe. 

"(They) landed in Normandy with their mobile unit and for four months they followed the advance until they reached Brussels. The invasion force was equipped with one mobile dental unit for each armoured division, two for each infantry division and three for each corps. Working and living under canvas, each unit comprised a dental officer, a dental clerk/assistant, a dental technician and a driver with a three-ton truck."  

 So, apparently, up until World War II, we WEREN'T fighting "tooth and nail"... and let's face it, nails alone just don't get the job done!  Fortunately, not only do we have the lasting photographic legacy of that victory in 1945, but also the enduring and continuing advances of Dentistry on the battlefield! And today, while we mourn the passing of "the sailor," we can still appreciate the unique piece of DENTAL history this also represents.