An Officer and a Female Dentist: Women in Military Dentistry
When the United States entered World War I in 1917, its dental corps consisted of only 86 officers (all male), or approximately one dentist for every 2,350 soldiers. Female dentists across the country immediately volunteered but were politely declined, as the U.S. military at the time only allowed women to serve as nurses. A female dentist on staff in the military was unheard of.
It was a replay of the 1898 Spanish-American war, when female dental professionals offered their services to Uncle Sam only to be rebuffed by male political and military leaders who believed that women and the military didn’t mix. This policy would remain in effect until 1949, but some female dentists combined determination and ingenuity to get around the barrier and to serve their country.
Fortunately for the generations of women dentists to follow, these adventurous professionals did not take no for an answer. Let’s take a closer look at two of them.
Leonie von Zesch
Leonie von Zesch had an irrepressible will that drove her to create her own opportunities. She received her D.D.S. from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in San Francisco in 1902 and, when her office was destroyed in the wake of the city’s 1906 earthquake, she assisted the U.S. Army by providing dental services to those in the refugee camp at the Presidio Army base. This position made her the first (and only) female dentist in the U.S. Army until 1951.
After a few months, the Board of Health tried to replace her with a male dentist, but Dr. von Zesch refused to leave. When influential friends influenced the Board to change its mind about her, she remained at the army base until the relief effort ended.
In 1908, Dr. von Zesch organized local dentists to provide care to the navy seamen of the Great White Fleet. To hide her gender, she had her paychecks made out to male colleagues who willingly supported her. She resorted to a similar strategy in 1933, when she worked with California’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps to provide dental care to over 4,000 boys. This time, she signed her own vouchers, but as “L. von Zesch.”
In the latter years of her colorful career, von Zesch became a prison dentist for the California Institution for Women at Tehachapi. She later joked that it was her only job where “it stood me in good stead to be a woman.”
Sara G. Krout
Born in Latvia in 1898, Sara Gdulin Krout was used to overcoming challenges. She struggled through the hardships of both World War I and the Russian Revolution and defied convention by receiving a D.D.S. from the University of Riga in 1920. She moved to the U.S. soon afterward and, determined to retain her chosen profession, attended the University of Illinois College of Dentistry. She graduated with her second D.D.S. in 1924.
When World War II broke out, Dr. Krout was determined to serve her adopted country. Military restrictions still prevented women from enlisting as dental professionals, but she circumvented them by joining the U.S. Navy’s Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) in 1944. This decision led to her making history as the first female dentist in the navy.
Dr. Krout rose to the rank of lieutenant and remained on active duty as a dentist at Chicago’s Great Lakes Naval Training Station until 1946. She then opened a practice in Evanston, Illinois and served on the staff of the Women and Children’s Hospital of Chicago.
Despite a full roster of civilian responsibilities, Dr. Krout served in the U.S. Naval Reserve and in the Association of Military Surgeons of the United States until her retirement in 1961, at which point she had attained the rank of commander.
In 1949, when faced with a shortage of military medical personnel, Congress acknowledged that women had proven their worth in the armed forces by passing the Army Female Medical Department Act.
The persistence of Leonie von Zesch, Sara G. Krout, and their contemporaries set the stage for the accomplishments of women like Dr. Helen Myers, who became the first female dentist commissioned by the U.S. Army Dental Corps in 1951, and Rear Admiral Carol I. Turner, who was made the first female Chief of the U.S. Navy Dental Corps in 2003. To each of these stalwart women, we owe a sincere debt of gratitude for their sacrifices and for their perseverance, as they paved the way for all women in dentistry today.