Memories of a Wartime Dental Student

Alan Vogt (LDS, 1947) sent us a fascinating letter and collection of photographs describing what life was like for a Dental student midway through the Second World War, a world away from student life nowadays.


Final year dentistry students - June 1947 - in front of QE hospital"I was a student from 1943-1947. During the war men were called up for National Service at 18 but medical and dental students were exempt until they qualified. They would then be enlisted into the Forces as medical or dental officers. If during their course, students failed an exam for the second time, they were called up.

"I took A levels in Chemistry, Physics and Biology at King Edwards High School. I had a lofty vision of taking a combined course of medicine and dentistry. I mentioned this to the careers master and he said "well, Vogt, for that you need lots of money and lots of brains." As I had neither, I abandoned that idea! I entered the Dental School in the second year and was overwhelmed at all we had to learn in Anatomy. I failed the exam first time and the Sword of Damocles of call-up was hanging over me! The group of us who had to take the exam again arranged for a member of the staff to give us tutorials using beautifully dissected models. I learnt more in those few weeks than I had learnt in all the year every afternoon in the dissecting room! Thankfully, I passed next time.

"We were required to attend Senior Training Corps parades once a week - as sort of students' Dad's Army. Also, fire watching was another duty. One evening, we went up Old Joe clock tower to check for any fires - a wonderful view all over Birmingham. We also had to fire-watch at the Dental Hospital, in Great Charles Street, sleeping on iron beds in the basement. I was fortunate that there were no raids when I was on duty but we had to practise using the hoses. For a lark, one student directed the outpouring water onto the open window of a building opposite!

"The hospital building was very old fashioned but as a new building was planned to be built once the war was over, it wasn't thought necessary to modernise it. In the conservation room, we had to use foot pedal drills. No local anaesthetic was used for fillings. I once had a friend as a patient. As I was drilling his tooth, he let out a moan and said "not that you're really hurting me but I thought I'd remind you that you're not drilling into a block of wood!"

Summer 1945 - 3rd year students

"We didn't wear gloves in those days. I pinched the ball of my thumb in the hinge of the forceps during a general anaesthetics session. It went septic and I had to have the nail taken off at the Birmingham General Hospital. I couldn't write up lecture notes or see patients for two months. I was not up to schedule with the required number of fillings, extractions, crowns etc before taking finals but was given compassionate leave to lower the requirements.

"Academic staff were in short supply due to the call up but they helped us as much as they could. One helpful tip for study was the "Family Tree" method, writing out on sheets of A4 with the subject at the top, divided into headings (the "Children") and then sub-divided (the "grandchildren"). Thus, the subject was at my finger tips for revision just before exams. Also, I wrote out answers to previous exam questions and a tutor went over them giving useful advice.

"As Chairman of the Dental Students' Society, I had to go and confront Professor Humphrys with our complaints, e.g. the students were expected to trundle the large gas cyclinders from the front door to the general anaesthetics department and the lighting over the chairs in the conservation room was inadequate. I had to get the tram to the Medical School to see the Professor who was a kind, gentle man and very understanding.

"As the Dental Hospital was far from the University campus, dental students tended to be isolated. Personally, I valued meeting with students from a variety of faculties in the Christian Union. I qualified L.D.S. in December 1947. Very few went on to B.D.S. in those days. While awaiting call-up, I was invited to work at the Dental Hospital to help clear the extensive waiting list of patients. I was then doing the same work as I did before but now being paid for it! After two months, I was enrolled in the Royal Army Dental Corps, which I enjoyed. The first year was spent in Portsmouth with weekly trips to the Isle of Wight to treat troops on the island. I was stationed in Austria for the second year, in the Army of Occupation after the war. It was a pleasant time with skiing in the winter and tennis and swimming in the lakes in the summer. My one claim to fame was making a denture for the Brigadier in charge of the British Forces in Austria. The impression material got a bit stuck in his moustache but he was satisfied with the final result!

"I'm very grateful for all I learnt at the Dental School, in spite of all the limitations of wartime. I went into general practice in South London and enjoyed 36 years there, plus some experience of the East End working as dentist of the Bethnal Green medical mission."