We already talked about how dentures helped win World War II , but decades before the US military tried to develop dentures that would help our soldiers–affectionately known as “doughboys”–stay fit for fighting the Kaiser on the battlefields of France in World War I. Although it is less well known than other innovations to come out of the war–such as tanks and planes and poison gas–the combat denture that was developed is another sign of how important science was to the war.
Why Did Soldiers Need Dentures?
In order to volunteer to answer the call of “Uncle Sam” (who was invented specifically to recruit soldiers for the war), young men had to be between the ages of 18 and 35. These days, we imagine that people of this age are likely to have enough teeth to eat effectively. In fact, statistics show that on average people have 27 permanent teeth at this age, out of the 28 natural ones most of us retain (we’re given 32, but most of us have the four wisdom teeth removed).
But at the time of WWI, the situation was very different. In order to qualify for service, a young man only had to have 12 teeth : three pairs of opposing incisors and three pairs of opposing molars. You could even qualify if some of these 12 teeth were replaced by dentures.
And oral health at the time was so bad that failure to meet this criterion accounted for 24 rejections out of every 1000 men considered . It was the 8th most common reason for rejection.
For the army at this time, ensuring its soldiers had dentures was essential to ensuring they could eat, especially the sometimes very tough field rations that many lived on at the front.
Creating Battlefield-Ready Dentures
In the early 20th century, most people wore dentures made of vulcanized rubber inset with porcelain teeth. These were attractive and relatively comfortable, but they were fragile, and it was worried that under battlefield conditions, they would often be broken and replacement dentures would be hard to supply.
To make sure that doughboys wouldn’t become unfit for duty due to broken dentures, the US army developed the “Amex” denture , which took its name from the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) that was sent to France, although the concept was originally developed in the aftermath of the Civil War. The Amex denture was cast in a single piece, teeth and all, from aluminum. Although it wasn’t very aesthetic, and probably wasn’t that comfortable, it was lightweight, durable, and could be cast on the battlefield.
Using a common “Soixante Quinze” (75mm) shell for the casting flask, there was very little that was needed to make the denture. Wax and plaster of paris were necessary to make the impression–plus the aluminum for the denture itself–were all that was needed to make a new denture.The casting lid could be made out of soaked newspaper.
But it turned out there wasn’t really much need for the Amex denture. Our first troops landed in France in June 1917, and by November 1918 the war was over. We don’t know how many Amex dentures were made, but very few survive, and it’s likely it was ever made in significant numbers.
By WWII, oral health had improved, along with dentures, and the Amex denture was never called to serve again.