Merit Badge History: Dentistry gets seal of approval from American Dental Association

When the Dentistry merit badge debuted in 1975, The New York Times covered the news with this clever headline: “A New Drill For Scouts: A Dentist’s.”

“Time was when the tools of Scouting were a compass and an ax,” the Times article read. “In the new Boy Scouts, it could help to have a little dental floss.”

Boys’ Life (now Scout Life) magazine opened its April 1975 coverage of the badge with this intro (exclamation point and all): “What’s the most widespread of all the world’s diseases? Tooth decay!”

Across the country, Scouts were all smiles about the new Dentistry merit badge, created in partnership with the American Dental Association to offer an open-wide peek into the world of incisors, canines and molars. 

The badge covers the expected range of dental hygiene tips, such as proper teeth brushing, the role of fluoride and what snacks should be avoided to maintain the best oral health.

Beyond dental cleanliness (part of the Scout Law, after all), Scouts learn about keeping their teeth safe — ensuring those pearly whites don’t become damaged in rough sports, falls and “playground dangers like hard swing-seats and thrown baseball bats,” Boys’ Life writes. Yikes!

But when the worst happens, Scouts who earn the Dentistry merit badge know what to do.

“If a tooth is knocked out, the dentist might be able to replace it in the victim’s jaw, if correct action is taken promptly,” Boys’ Life writes. “Don’t clean the tooth; place it in water or wrap it in a clean, wet cloth. Take the tooth and its owner to a dentist at once.”

Like all merit badges, this one gives Scouts something to sink their teeth into through hands-on activities that put Scouts in the center of the action. They might prepare a dental stone cast, make a model tooth out of papier-mâché or clip out toothpaste ads to analyze their claims for accuracy.

A focus on careers

Some merit badges, such as perennial summer camp favorites Nature, Pioneering and Wilderness Survival, impart skills that help Scouts build confidence in the outdoors. Others, like Dentistry, could be completed without taking a single step outside.

And isn’t that the beauty of the BSA’s merit badge program? Its 137-strong selection of badges introduces young people to a variety of experiences that mostly aren’t covered in schools. 

Most Scouting alumni can trace the genesis of at least one hobby back to a merit badge. Some can even draw a straight line from a merit badge to their chosen career. 

Take Dr. Sterling Foy, a dentist in Omaha, Neb., who says his passion for dentistry began when he earned the Dentistry merit badge as a Boy Scout in Oklahoma.

The opposite can be true, too. Sometimes a merit badge is an eye-opening experience in the other direction — as in, “nope, that’s not for me.” Spending a few bucks on a merit badge pamphlet is a low-risk way to learn that a career path or hobby isn’t the right fit.

When it blasted onto the scene in 1975, Dentistry joined other career-focused merit badges like Law (1974), Landscape Architecture (1967), Engineering (1967) and American Business (1967).

Additional career-oriented badges have been added in the years since, including Animation (2015), Entrepreneurship (1997), Graphic Arts (1987) and Medicine (1991).

Involving the industry

Beyond introducing Scouts to a potential career, the Dentistry merit badge opened the BSA’s doors to adults who previously weren’t affiliated with Scouting.

Dentists and dental professionals were invited to register as merit badge counselors, using their professional skills as a way to give back to their community and inspire the next generation. 

This connection had (and still has) the seal of approval from the American Dental Association. Beyond connecting troops with merit badge counselors, the ADA gives the BSA permission to use the official emblem of dentistry in the badge design.

That emblem includes the staff of Asclepius (a god associated with health) entwined with a snake (a symbol of rejuvenation). You’ll also see the triangular Greek letter delta (representing the D in dentistry) and the O-shaped Greek letter omicron, representing “odont,” or tooth.

The lilac color in the triangle is the official color of dentistry — seen on graduation caps and gowns at dental schools.

The outlook for Dentistry

According to the 2020 rankings, Dentistry is currently the 116th most popular merit badge, which places it in the bottom 15%. About 2,000 to 3,000 Scouts earn the merit badge each year.

In its 46-year history, the merit badge has been earned 152,381 times — good enough for 104th on the lifetime list.

As with many merit badges near the bottom of the rankings, Dentistry has requirements that take a little extra time to complete, such as requirement 3: “Arrange a visit with a dentist.” 

Also, for those troops that don’t have a dentist or dental professional among their volunteer ranks, finding a qualified counselor presents an extra hurdle. 

Let that be a challenge to you and your Scouts to boost that ranking over the coming years. Start with your own dentist and see if he or she would be willing to serve as a merit badge counselor. 

To put a twist on the toothpaste commercial cliché, four out of five dentists would love to be Dentistry merit badge counselors. You just have to ask. 

Current Dentistry merit badge requirements

These are the requirements as of the publication date of this blog post. To ensure you’re using the most up-to-date version, check here before starting a merit badge.

  1. Using X-ray (radiographic) films and with your counselor’s guidance, study the tooth structure and look for decay. Then do the following: 
    • Using the radiographs as a guide, draw a lower molar. Label its parts and surfaces. Show surrounding structures such as bone and gum tissues. 
    • Show on your drawing where the nerves and blood vessels enter the tooth. 
    • Show on your drawing where bacterial plaque is most likely to be found.
  2. Do the following: 
    • Tell or write about what causes dental decay and gum disease. Tell how each of the following contributes to dental decay and gum disease: bacterial plaque, sugars, and acid. 
    • Tell the possible causes for traumatic tooth loss, describe the types of mouth guards used to help prevent tooth trauma, and list the athletic activities during which a person should wear a mouth guard. 
    • Explain the first-aid procedure for saving a tooth that has been knocked out. 
    • Discuss how the use of tobacco products can negatively affect your oral health.
  3. Arrange for a visit with a dentist. Before you go, ask whether your visit can include a dental examination and a plaque-control demonstration. Afterward, ask questions about things you want to know. Then tell your counselor what the dentist does during a checkup examination.
  4. Do TWO of the following: 
    • Name at least five instruments and five pieces of equipment a dentist uses. 
    • With the help of a dentist, prepare a dental stone cast using a vibrator, a mixing bowl, a water measure, a plastic measure, model stone, and a spatula. 
    • Keep a record of everything you eat for three days. Circle those items that may provide the sugars that bacterial plaque needs to make acid. List snacks that you should avoid to help maintain the best oral health.
  5. Discuss with your merit badge counselor the following: 
    • How fluorides help prevent tooth decay and the ways fluorides can be provided to the teeth. 
    • How the mouth is related to the rest of the body. Topics might include chewing, saliva, enzymes, nutrition, and speech. 
  6. Do TWO of the following: 
    • Make a model tooth out of soap, clay, papier-mâché, or wax. Using a string and a large hand brush, show your troop or a school class proper toothbrushing and flossing procedures. 
    • Make a poster on the prevention of dental disease. Show the importance of good oral health. 
    • Collect at least five advertisements for different toothpastes. List the claims that each one makes. Tell about the accuracy of the advertisements. 
    • Write a feature story for your school newspaper on the proper care of teeth and gums. Include in your story how the use of tobacco products can negatively affect a person’s oral health. 
    • Make drawings and write about the progress of dental decay. Describe the types of dental filling and treatments a dentist can use to repair dental decay problems.
  7. Learn about career opportunities for both Doctor of Dental Surgery (D.D.S.) and auxiliary dental professions. Pick either general dentistry OR a dental specialty, plus one auxiliary dental profession. Find out about the education, training, and experience required for these two professions. Discuss these with your counselor, and explain why these professions interest you.

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About Bryan Wendell 3200 Articles
Bryan Wendell, an Eagle Scout, is the founder of Bryan on Scouting and a contributing writer.