Dr.Ralph Yorsh Canadian Dental Corps Second World War
During the Great Depression, financial hardship meant that many people could not afford regular dental care. This later caused problems for potential soldiers, who needed to be ‘dentally fit’ in order to enlist. The importance of dental care for soldiers enlisting in the Second World War, coupled with a shortage of dentists, led to the creation of the Canadian Dental Corps (CDC), which trained dental students to use field equipment.
Dr. Ralph Yorsh was one such student. He studied dentistry at the University of Toronto, graduated in 1944 and served with the Royal Canadian Air Force in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. He ensured soldiers stationed there were healthy and comfortable. The effects of a healthy mouth were tremendous, but for one of Dr. Yorsh’s patients, it meant not just health but a vast improvement in his romantic prospects.
Dr. Yorsh has reached hundreds of Canadians through his story of military service through The Memory Project’s online archive. This transcript has been edited for clarity. His audio interview is available on The Memory Project website (thememoryproject.com).
There was a tremendous shortage of dentists and doctors in the country [during the Second World War]. During the Depression, times were tough and a lot of people couldn’t afford to get anything more done than emergencies. In other words, they would arrive at the dentist with a raging toothache when something had to be done. Because a third of the country were unemployed, dentistry was rather low on people’s list of priorities. So there was an awful lot of dentistry to be done, and not enough dentists to do it.
Now, when the war was declared, of course they signed up dentists because the rules were that nobody could go overseas unless they were dentally fit. In other words, they couldn’t have decayed teeth. They could have missing teeth but they had to be in sort of a decent state of repair to go overseas. Well, since there was a shortage, there was a group called the Canadian Association of Medical and Dental Students and Interns, they made a deal with the government that we could join the army when we went into the third of the [four-year] dentistry [program]. Dentistry and medicine were four-year courses and we could join up in third year as privates, draw private’s pay and allowances, look after our own housing. We wore a uniform, we were entitled medical and what have you, health. We looked after our own housing and our own food and so we graduated a year earlier. So normally I would have been class of 1945, but I graduated a year earlier, class of ‘44 [Dentistry, University of Toronto].
Our major job [as dentists in the Canadian Dental Corps,] was keeping people healthy and comfortable. This didn’t help the war effort but it certainly helped this one man — we had one man on the station and I looked at him and I said, ‘Come into the dental clinic, I want to have a look at you.’ And
he came in. Well, this poor fellow, his upper front teeth were literally so badly crowded that they stuck straight out. He couldn’t close his lips over these teeth. I’m sure he’d never kissed a girl in his life. There was just no way — these teeth were stuck out and he came from some village somewhere and no one had done anything about it. So … I thought he would be much happier and these were the only facilities available to me at the time, so I said to him, we’ll take up your upper four front teeth, your central and lateral incisors, I will make you a temporary partial denture to replace these and we will bring these teeth in where I feel we can get them and where they belong.
Well, I proceeded to do that and he was the most delighted man in the world. The only problem was his sergeant came a while later and said to me, ‘I wish you’d left that man alone, he was the best man in my section, he was the hardest worker. Now, we can’t even find him. He’s out chasing girls day and night.’ But on the other hand, he was one very happy airman.