Sunday, 18 June 2017




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

Fig. 2. Dr. William A. Birch (ISD).

Dr. Birch was born in Madison, Indiana, on 10 May 1878. In 1895, he began studying dentistry under a Dr. W. A. Heckard in Madison. He then entered the Indiana Dental College and graduated on 28 April 1900. On 6 August 1900, at age twenty-two, he enlisted in the Hospital Corps, U.S. Army, as a private, for three years at Indianapolis. His occupation was listed as a "dentist" with the notation "colored." He was originally assigned to Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, and then sent to the Philippines, stationed at San Jose, Batangas, Philippine Islands. His application was sent through military channels and was eventually approved by the Chief Surgeon, Department of North Philippines, on 13 January 1902. His testimonials included a letter from his detachment commander, Thomas F. Miller, Contract Surgeon, U.S. Army. Dr. Miller stated that he was "a thoroughly good soldier of exemplary habits, industrious and capable," and that, since joining the detachment, he had done "considerable dental work," which had been "entirely satisfactory." Dr. Birch was one of a small group of dentists who, as enlisted hospital corpsmen, provided their respective regiments with dental care prior to the formation of the official 1901 dental corps. They were the true pioneers of army dentistry. His other endorsement came from Examining and Supervising Dental Surgeon Robert T. Oliver (the dental corps' second ranking dental surgeon), who had been Dr. Birch's professor of anesthesia and oral surgery while he was a student at Indiana. Oliver called him "a close ambitious student with a determination to learn at every opportunity." His grades had been excellent in Oliver's classes. 11

On 18 January 1902, the Chief Surgeon, Division of the Philippines, returned Birch's application to the Chief Surgeon, Department of North Philippines, asking for a "further expression of opinion" from the officers who had approved the application. He continued: "It must be stated that the applicant is a colored man, and this office desires to know whether that fact will make any difference in their present recommendations. So far as this office is concerned the matter of color will have no weight." Again, the application went through channels eventually returning to the Chief Surgeon, North Philippines, who, on 29 January 1902, stated that "the original recommendation that Pvt. Birch be allowed to take the examination, is adhered to." However, the same day, 29 January, the acting adjutant general at Headquarters, Third Separate Brigade, Department of North Philippines, stated that "in view of information contained in 1st endorsement [Birch was colored]," the application was disapproved. On 4 February 1902, the Chief Surgeon, Headquarters, Department of North Philippines, recommended that Birch be allowed to take the examination but added that if he was appointed a contract dental surgeon "the field of operation would be too small in which to operate." In other words, he would be allowed to work only on black soldiers. With these problems, on 7 February 1902 the commanding general of the Department of North Philippines, Major General Loyd Wheaton, disapproved Birch's application "at this time." Subsequently, on 24 February 1902, the application was sent to The Adjutant General, and then to The Surgeon General in Washington, D.C. On 8 April 1902, The Surgeon General's Office informed Dr. Birch that his application for examination as a contract dental surgeon was not approved and, therefore, he could not take the examination. During the same period, several other (white) hospital steward/dentists were directly appointed as contract dental surgeons "without examination." Obviously, Birch had been singled out for "special" treatment.12

With this setback, Dr. Birch decided to leave the army and, on 29 April 1902, applied for "discharge by purchase." He said that a "good position" was open for him as a dentist and he wanted to avail himself of the opportunity. His discharge was approved by The Adjutant General on 29 August and orders were cut on 30 August 1902.13

The 1904 Memorandum:
"Undesirability of Colored Contract Surgeons"

In 1904, the official army policy on African-American physicians (and dentists) was spelled out by The Surgeon General (1902-09), Brigadier General Robert M. O'Reilly, in a memorandum for the President dated 24 December, entitled "Undesirability of Colored Contract Surgeons." The main points that The Surgeon General emphasized were:

(1) The enlisted personnel of all army posts where black troops were stationed was mixed, both black and white; however, all officers were white. To the officers and their families the "attendance of a colored physician would be repugnant," especially in the "intimate relations of family practice and in obstetrical cases and the diseases of women." However, the converse was not true that the "colored population would prefer one of their own color." On the contrary, they would probably "prefer and have greater confidence in the ability of a white surgeon."

(2) Contract surgeons had the "official status of officers" and by "military custom" associated socially with officers, not enlisted men. A black surgeon would be a "social pariah," cut off from the enlisted men of his color and by his color from his fellow officers.

(3) Contract surgeons were constantly being ordered from post to post; to have a surgeon who could only serve under certain "special conditions" and "special places" would not be for the "good of the service."

(4) The "superiority" of white officers rather than black officers for black troops was "well known" and recognized by Congress in the organization of the black regiments. Conversely, however, since the majority of the Hospital Corps personnel were white, to place a black officer over white enlisted men would be "injurious to discipline." He cited the example of Dr. Arthur M. Brown, a black contract surgeon serving with the 10th Cavalry Regiment in 1899 at Fort McIntosh, Texas. Dr. Brown was "shot and wounded" in a "personal encounter" with a white hospital steward, Thomas C. Reeds, on 11 February 1899. Dr. Brown's contract was annulled in March 1899.

(5) The opposition to the appointment of black military surgeons was not concerned "with any abstract question of the rights of the colored race" but was based on "military efficiency." 14

The same guidelines were applied for black contract dental surgeons. Therefore, none were appointed when vacancies in the dental corps occurred.

However, on 18 February 1907, The Surgeon General still publicly maintained that there was "nothing either in law or regulation which prohibits the appointment of a colored man in the Medical Corps of the Army, provided he can pass the prescribed physical and professional examination." In 1907, Dr. G. Jarvis Bowens, an African-American physician practicing in Norfolk, Virginia, expressed his dissatisfaction to The Surgeon General's standard reply of nothing "either in law or regulation" prohibiting the appointment of colored physicians in the U.S. Army. On 23 February 1907, he admonished the Secretary of War that he was "well aware of the fact that so far as the letter of the law there was nothing barring colored physicians," but he also knew that "the prejudice of those in the service of the U.S.A. Medical Corps is such that unless some special provision was made for the colored physicians that they would be turned down upon one pretext or another."15

African-American Dental Applicants: 1907-1911
"No Vacancies"

Apparently, not knowing of the army's official policy towards blacks or wishing to confirm their suspicions, some African-American dentists continued to request information on the dental corps. On 17 April 1907, Oscar W. Langston, D.D.S. (18??-19??) of Indianapolis, Indiana, wrote to The Surgeon General, stating that as a "Negro Dentist," he desired to know whether there were any vacancies for a "Negro Dental Surgeon" in the "colored regiments." Dr. Langston was a 1904 graduate of the Indiana Dental College. On 24 April, The Surgeon General's Office notified him that there were no vacancies in the dental corps. 16

Seibles Remington Green (1884-19??) originally from Columbia, South Carolina, who held an A.B. degree (1907) from Lincoln University, on 20 July 1909, wrote to the Secretary of War asking for information on the chances of a "Colored Dentist" getting a position with one of the army's "colored" regiments. On 22 July 1909, The Surgeon General's Office replied that army dental surgeons were not assigned to any one regiment for duty, but were ordered from post to post as the demand for their services required. An application blank and information memorandum was included. In 1909, Green entered Howard University, Washington, D.C., to study medicine. Apparently, when he wrote to The Surgeon General in 1909, he was trying to decide whether to pursue dentistry or medicine as a career. He chose medicine. 17

William A. Rodenberg, a Congressman from Illinois, on 16 July 1910, wrote to the Secretary of War requesting information for one of his constituents, Dr. L.M. Bundy (18??-19??), "a colored dentist," of East St. Louis, Illinois. Dr. Bundy wanted to know the requirements for appointment as a dental surgeon in a "colored regiment." On 19 July 1910, The Surgeon General's Office sent the Congressman the necessary forms. Apparently, Dr. Bundy failed to follow up on his application.18