Navy dentistry celebrates 100 years in new exhibit

This article has photo gallery Published on LEUT Ryan Zerbe (author), ABIS Bonny Gassner (photographer)

Location(s): Henry Forman Atkinson Dental Museum, Vic

Topic(s): Naval Heritage and History

Royal Australian Navy Dental Officers, Lieutenant Commander Simon Flanagan and Lieutenant Vishal Bhakoo, tour the Henry Forman Atkinson Dental Museum within the University of Melbourne. (photo: ABIS Bonny Gassner)
Royal Australian Navy Dental Officers, Lieutenant Commander Simon Flanagan and Lieutenant Vishal Bhakoo, tour the Henry Forman Atkinson Dental Museum within the University of Melbourne.

A new exhibit has opened at the University of Melbourne, reflecting on a century of Navy dental personnel keeping sailors fit to bite and fit to fight.

The exhibit in the Henry Forman Atkinson Dental Museum traces the past 100 years of dental practice in the Navy. 

Dental Officer Lieutenant Commander Simon Flanagan attended the opening and found it an appropriate way to recognise the service of his forebears and fellow ‘fang bosuns’. 

“Milton Spencer Atwill was appointed as the RAN’s first Dental Officer in HMAS Australia on 8 April 1918, and to attend this opening just several days short of the 100th anniversary of the path he forged is fantastic,” he said. 

“Personally, I’ll never forget working 12 to 14 hour days in HMAS Manoora to see almost all of the ship’s company and embarked Army personnel, or trying to treat patients in an Anzac class frigate as we crossed the choppy Bass Strait.

“Our dental personnel have deployed around the world since Milton Atwill paved the way and I hope we’ll see Navy’s dental branch even stronger in another 100 years,” Lieutenant Commander Flanagan said.

Navy’s dental branch became formalised in 1922, several years after Milton Atwill’s appointment, with an additional five Dental Officers and supporting staff of sailors.

Since then they have served at sea and ashore during peace and times of war.

Five members of the dental branch were killed in action in 1941 and 1942 with the loss of HMA Ships Perth (I) and Sydney (II). 

Exhibit curator Dr Jacqueline Healy said the 100th anniversary of dentistry in the Navy is a good time to reflect on the unique demands of the dental practice in a military setting.

“It’s interesting how World War One was the turning point for the dental profession in terms of recognition in the armed services. 

“In the First World War, dentists were an afterthought and it was only with the evacuation of hundreds of people with dental pain from Gallipoli that people thought dentists should be more than stretcher bearers and get to practice their profession. 

“I hope the wider community understand how hard it is to be a dentist on a moving craft and the extra skill required to keep a patient still in the cramped conditions that are part of life onboard ships,” Dr Healy said.

Dental Officers and their Dental Assistants are part of Navy’s Health Services Branch and work at sea and ashore to offer a comprehensive range of general and specialist dental services.