Thursday, 29 January 2015


                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   BLACK          SOCIAL        HISTORY                                    

BLACK             SOCIAL                HISTORY                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               IN THE BEGINNING: 1898-1901
The Army Medical Department's Policy
There were no dental surgeons in the Medical Department of the United States Army (with one exception) until the formation of the Dental Corps in 1901, and there were no African-American dental surgeons in the army until 1917.  Perhaps, it would have taken even longer had not the country mobilized in 1916 for the war in Europe, causing the formation of the Officers' Reserve Corps and the subsequent commissioning of black officers.1
Similarly, the Medical Department of the United States Army had no African-American physicians on its roster.  In 1898, during the war with Spain, four black contract surgeons were appointed.  However, the army found their services wanting and dispensed with any future appointments.2
The Spanish American War:  1898
Captain Jefferson as a Military Dentist
The destruction of the U.S. battleship U.S.S. Maine in Havana harbor on 15 February 1898, and the subsequent declaration of war on Spain on 25 April, had a dramatic effect on the status of army dentistry.  For the first time large contingents of U.S. troops, including the black units, were serving outside the continental limits of the United States.  Official reports of the dental discomforts of the troops in Cuba and the Philippines made the War Department painfully aware that there were no dental surgeons to relieve the suffering.  Hitherto, the army did not wish to bear the cost of dental care for its soldiers, the bulk of whom were usually only temporarily attached through one enlistment.  Increased efforts were now made by the dental profession to induce Congress to pass legislation authorizing the establishment of a corps of dental surgeons.  However, the war ended without any legislation being passed.
In 1898, the War Department even contemplated the advantage of employing African-American troops in Cuba and the Philippines.  It was thought that they had a greater immunity to yellow fever than white troops.  In fact, all four of the regular army's black regiments (24th and 25th Infantry, and the 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments)(collectively known as the "Buffalo Soldiers") and three black national guard regiments (8th Illinois, 9th Louisiana, and 23d Kansas Regiments) were eventually deployed to Cuba.  Among the officers of the 8th Regiment, Illinois Infantry, an African-American unit from the Chicago area, was Captain William T. Jefferson, a dentist. 3
Dr. William Thomas Jefferson (1864-1925) was born on 4 August 1864 in Washington, D.C.  Later, his family moved to Derby, Connecticut.  In 1886, he began studying dentistry under Dr. Frederick B. Merrill at Bermingham, Connecticut.  In the fall of 1889, he entered Howard University's dental department in Washington, D.C., but, in March 1890, he transferred to the American College of Dental Surgery in Chicago, graduating on 24 March 1891.  He then established a practice in Chicago.  After joining the Knights of Pithias, on 1 April 1895, Dr. Jefferson became a member of Company "D," 9th Battalion.  He was unanimously elected a second lieutenant on 1 May 1895 when the battalion became a part of the Illinois State Militia.  Dr. Jefferson entered the Illinois National Guard  as a first lieutenant on 4 November 1895.  On 28 June 1898, with the onset of the war, the battalion was reorganized into the 8th Illinois Volunteer Infantry.   Dr. Jefferson was appointed the captain of Company "D" on 21 July 1898.  Unfortunately, two months later, on 21 September, he was hospitalized for malaria.  Still, he served with his regiment in Cuba and was stationed at San Luis De Cuba in February 1899.  Dr. Jefferson, in addition to his command responsibilities as a line officer, also found time to provide dental care for his regiment.   He described his wartime dental experience:  "While in the service, seeing the necessity of a dentist, I gave my services free in the hospital to the officers and soldiers of the 8th Illinois, 23rd Kansas and 9th Louisiana, U.S.V."  Possibly, Dr. Jefferson was the first dentist of his race to perform dentistry in the U.S. military.  He was discharged with his regiment at Chicago on 3 April 1899.  Dr. Jefferson CONTINUED his military career with the Illinois National Guard and was appointed inspector of rifle practice with rank of first lieutenant, serving on the staff of Colonel John R. Marshall in the 8th Battalion, Illinois National Guard.4
On 3 September 1899, Dr. Jefferson, now back in practice in his office on State Street in Chicago, and advertising "GOLD Crowns and Bridge Work A Specialty" on his letterhead, wrote to his senator, William E. Mason, asking endorsement for his application for a commission in a new "Colored Volunteer Regiment" to be formed for service in the Philippines.  The senator endorsed Dr. Jefferson's application and forwarded it to the War Department.  On 2 October 1899, the Secretary of War (1899-1904), Elihu Root, notified Mr. Mason that "every appointment of this character" for the volunteer regiments being formed was already "provided for" and that, therefore, Dr. Jefferson's application could not be considered at that time.  However, he continued to serve in the Illinois Guard until 1916.  Dr. Jefferson died in Chicago on 26 October 1925.5

The Formation of the Army Dental Corps:  1901
African-American Applicants
Although many previous legislative efforts had failed, on 2 February 1901, the President finally approved and signed the Act (S. 4300) "to increase the efficiency of the military establishment of the United States," which provided for 30 contract dental surgeons attached to the Army Medical Department.  Now, a corps of military dental surgeons was officially part of the U.S. Army.  No other army in history had ever so recognized the dental profession.  Theoretically, black dental surgeons were eligible for appointment.  In fact, three did apply.6
The first African-American dentist to apply for appointment as a Contract Dental Surgeon, U.S. Army, was Dr. Charles Clifford Fry (1871- 19??), a dental practitioner in Washington, D.C.  His application was dated 15 February 1901.7
Dr. Fry was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, on 5 June 1871.  In 1893, he began studying dentistry in the offices of Drs. William S. Lofton and A. J. Gwathney in Washington, D.C.  In May 1899, he received his D.D.S. degree from the dental department of Howard University in Washington.  In 1900, he was one of the founders of the Washington Society of Colored Dentists of the District of Columbia, the first black dental organization in the country.  At the time of his application to the army, he was practicing in Washington.  On 30 January 1901, Congressman Thomas S. Butler contacted The Surgeon General concerning Dr. Fry's interest in the dental corps.  On 5 February, The Surgeon General assured him that Fry would be given "due consideration" when the selections were made.   On 14 February 1901, he was ordered to report to the War Department building (room 332) for examination on 25 February 1901.  He "failed to appear" and was marked absent.  He was rescheduled for 18 March but again "failed to appear."  Later that day, Dr. Fry notified the surgeon general that he wished to withdraw his application.  No reason was given.8
The second African-American dental surgeon to apply for appointment as a contract dental surgeon in the U.S. Army was the aforementioned Spanish-American War veteran, Dr. William T. Jefferson of Chicago.  His letter was dated 8 February 1901 (formal application dated 24 February 1901).  On 20 February 1901, The Surgeon General informed him that a candidate from his state, Illinois, had already been selected and that under the provisions of the act of 2 February 1901, only one candidate from each state could be selected for appointment as a dental surgeon (30 authorized).  If he desired, his application could be kept on file if a vacancy occurred.  On 13 March 1901, Dr. Jefferson was informed by The Surgeon General that the Illinois candidate had passed the examination and had been appointed.  Finally, on 10 January 1905, Dr. Jefferson was notified by The Surgeon General's Office that as he was now over thirty years old, he would no longer be eligible for appointment as a dental surgeon.9
The third African-American dentist to apply in 1901 was Dr. William Anderson Birch (1878-19??), of Indianapolis, Indiana, a hospital corpsman, U.S. Army, serving in the Philippines.  On 11 November 1901, Dr. Birch sent in his formal application.  As a hospital corpsman in the U.S. Army, Dr. Birch, under the provisions of the act of 2 February 1901, was entitled to be appointed a contract dental surgeon "without examination."  All "dental-college graduates" who had been "detailed for a period of not less than twelve months to render dental service to the Army" in a satisfactory manner were eligible. 10