Dentistry alum served in WWII then Korea with Royal Canadian Dental Corps

  • November 11, 2023

A new banner flies on a lamppost in St. Peters, NS, on this Memorial Day, we honor the service of a Dalhousie alum Major Joseph D. Bourque (DDS’51).

Shortly after finishing high school, Bourque enlisted in the navy, serving in the Second World War on HMCS Sorel, part of the ‘Flower Class Corvettes’ which tracked German submarines and protected British ships.

He returned home and when he heard that there was a growing need for dentists, he enrolled in Dal dentistry through the Canadian Armed Forces. After graduation, he was stationed in Moncton, NB An early National Film Board documentary from the 1950s shows Bourque performing dental examinations in Moncton on soldiers bound for Korea – and before long, he was also deployed there.

More than 26,000 Canadians served in the Korean War and 516 people died, but Bourque survived. He returned home nine months later, having been promoted from second lieutenant to captain to major.

He did dental work while in Korea, but also did basic training with other soldiers. “He continued to do it. “He was sleeping in a sleeping bag in the rice fields,” said Bourque’s daughter, Rosemary Bourque (DDH’87). “We (later) had his sleeping bag and military tent. My mother wanted to throw them away because they smell, but my father refused to let her.” Rosemary adds, smiling, “Somehow, he managed to disappear during our many movements.”

There are no jokes in war

Rosemary says her father, like many veterans at the time, rarely talked about the war or his experiences. But he occasionally referred to things he had seen before, such as Vincent’s Infection, a painful and painful disease of the ends of the teeth and gums also known as canal mouth. According to a book about the Royal Canadian Dental Corps, quality dental record keeping was also a priority as dental records were a means of identifying soldiers who had died otherwise.

Not only was Bourque reluctant to talk about the war, “He wouldn’t watch M*A*S*H (a TV sitcom about the Korean War),” says Rosemary, shown at right. “Our family loved it but there was nothing funny about it at the time.”

After active service, Bourque served as an army dentist stationed in Greenwood, NS, then Churchill, MB, Valcartier, Que., and Trenton, Ont. Rosemary, the youngest of five children, says she didn’t mind the move, and it gave her a long-lasting thirst for travel. He was disappointed when his father later went to work in Germany for a year alone.

Bourque retired from the military in 1969 and the family settled in Antigonish, NS Bourque became a public health dentist – and is believed to have been the last traveling public health dentist in Antigonish and Guysborough counties.

The newspaper clipping seen above right shows Bourque being greeted by family upon his return from Korea.

Colleagues, veterans and lifelong friends

Several of Bourque’s dentist friends were Dal alumni and veterans, including Maurice (Moe) Harquail (DDS’54) who became mayor of New Glasgow, James McGaughey (DDS’51) again Vince McMaster (DDS’47).

“These gentlemen were longtime friends of my father’s and they practiced in NS and PEI after their military careers,” said Rosemary.

Bourque’s transition from the military to public health, “speaks to his persona for sure,” Rosemary said. He saw the need for good dentists in both cases and was confident he could help. She describes him as purposeful, ethical, funny, hardworking and strong.

“He had no love for the outside world,” Rosemary recalls, but she does remember waking up in the middle of the night as a little girl and stumbling downstairs at 2 a.m. to find her father in his chair, reading. He says: “He waved at me and hugged me until I fell asleep.” “He was dedicated to taking care of those who needed his help.”

The mobile dental clinic: the end of an era

Rosemary says her stockiness was not a hindrance to her excellent work for 11 years with the school children she treated in her mobile clinic. He improved the oral health of thousands of children. The work style he imitated also impressed his children, three of whom studied at Dal: Daniel Bourque (BEd’83), Rosemary Bourque (DDH’87) again Catherine (Bourque) Moulton (BScN’92).

Rosemary has worked in private practice for most of her dental hygienist career, and for the past 15 years has worked in public health, like her father before her. Brings fluoride mouthwash (now fluoride varnish) to schools.

Bourque suffered a stroke in 1980 that forced him to stop practicing, but he and his wife, Margaret, were happy living on the farm they bought in Merigomish, NS until Bourque was diagnosed with dementia. He died in 2010 at Camp Hill Veteran’s Memorial Hospital in Halifax.

The Memorial Banner Program allows family members to have a banner created with their veteran’s name and photo to be displayed on lampposts lining the streets of veterans’ homes leading up to Nov. 11. Bourque’s children were hanged at St. Peter’s, near the little place. The community of River Bourgeois, Cape Breton, where he came from.

“It’s a really good sermon,” said Rosemary.