The first Canadian dentists to go overseas in the first World War were with a unit called No. 3 Canadian General Hospital (McGill), which was organized entirely within McGill University in early 1915. Among them was L.H. Thornton, son of Dean Thornton, who interrupted his dental studies to join the war effort.
The 1939-1945 conflict involved many McGill dentists—both graduates and students—some of whom helped create a mobile dental clinic in 1941. The war years also brought great hardships to members of the Faculty as so many instructors were overseas. When the war ended, the school had survived the absence of many of its instructors because of the unselfish effort of the few who had remained on the staff.
Things were moving along nicely when the Second World War broke out. Half the teaching staff left immediately, volunteering for military service. So did 75 of the Faculty's graduates, half of whom served in the Canadian Dental Corps. A good number saw action in Italy and Northwest Europe.
Some became specialists in areas such as jaw surgery, trench mouth and other periodontal infections. Others worked with teams developing plastic surgery techniques and dealing with burn victims. Mobile military units provided the basic services that laid the groundwork for McGill's own mobile outreach dental clinic that today serves street people and others in Montreal
But the war gave the Faculty its own challenges. With half the regular instructors in the forces, those left behind had to deal with their own busy practices and meet an increased demand for health care professionals.
Dean Walsh instituted a system of accelerated classes. Students attended the Faculty for 36 consecutive months instead of the usual four academic years. The class of 1943 received their degrees in February 1943 instead of May. The class of 1944 graduated in December 1943. The class of 1945 finished in July 1944. And the class of 1946 graduated in July 1945. When peace was declared, the Faculty was proud of its efforts.
A Faculty Graduate Helps end the Second World War
The scene: Second Quebec Conference in September 1944 when Prime Minister Winston Churchill met President Franklin Roosevelt to finalize strategic plans to invade Germany and end the war in the Pacific. The two leaders of the free world were quartered in the Citadel under the tightest security while their military and civilian staff took over the Château Frontenac. An aide noticed that Churchill was preoccupied, not able to give his full attention to the matters at hand.
He had a toothache! The Prime Minister was rushed to the nearest military clinic at 87 rue St-Louis where the dental emergency was treated by the senior dental officer, Major P.J. Gitnick, DDS 1935.
The treatment was a success. Churchill was able to focus on strategy. Germany was invaded. The war in the Pacific ended. And Major Gitnick received a nice thank you note from the Prime Minister, along with a signed copy of his autobiographical book, My Early Life.