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The life of Eric Cooper: consultant dental surgeon and Colditz dentist

Our current display features a collection of items from Eric Cooper, who worked consultant dental surgeon from 1951-1974 in Morecambe Bay. Serving in the Royal Army Dental Corps during the Second World War, he was captured and served as a dentist in various prisoner of war camps, including Colditz from 1943 until liberation in 1945.

 

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Items on display from Eric's story at the BDA Museum

 

 

Early life

Eric Cooper grew up in Rotherham and at the age of 16 the local school dentist inspired him to become a dentist. In 1931 Eric attended Guy's hospital to study dentistry, having won a West Riding major scholarship. 

He graduated in 1936 with an Honours BDS, gaining distinctions in Surgery and Pharmacology. In an interview with the BDJ in 1995 Eric described as "magical" his six months working as a house surgeon for pioneer in maxillofacial surgery, Sir William Kelsey Fry

He entered general dental practice in Chislehurst in 1937. 

 

"Occasionally, I would do a 'locum' session at the Greenwich Hospital for George Exner. These amounted to two hours of out-patient treatment - treament confined to extraction under general anaesthetic. I don't suppose I ever removed fewer than 200 teeth in any of these sessions".

 

Battle of Crete

Following the outbreak of the Second World War Eric joined the Royal Army Dental Corps and joined No. 26 General Hospital. 

After a lengthy trip at sea on the Queen Mary he was based in Palestine and then Kifissia, north of Athens. 

The hospital remained there until the spring of 1941, when the Germans invaded Greece and an evacuation to Crete followed. Eric joined the No. 7 (tented) General Hospital, which was based on the north coast of Crete.

One morning Eric described how the sky was filled with silent gliders and parachutes of many colours - thus the battle of Crete had begun.  

"It was rather beautiful really, but then there was gunfire and nasty whining bullets flying around".


Eric and his compatriots were told to head to Chora Sfakion on the coast, where the navy would rescue them. 

After travelling by night for three days with no food and no sleep it was clear that escape was hopeless, and Eric was directed back to the north of Crete. 

 

"Towards the end of the third night, after 24 hours without water, a few us found our way into a walled monastery garden where there was a well. I filled my tin hat with water and drank it all. We had had no food since we began the walk and almost no sleep."

 

Prisoner of war

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Postcard from Eric Cooper to his sister, sent from Lamsdorf POW camp

 

 

In October 1941 as prisoners of war (POW), Eric and the remaining soldiers were transferred by ship to Salonika (Thessaloniki) and through Germany by train to Stalag VIII B Lamsdorf Upper Silesia (now in Poland). 

Eric got an opportunity to practice dentistry in a reasonably well-equipped camp near Berlin in early 1942 before he was moved again. 

In 1943 he was told that he was going to a "holiday camp in the Black Forest". In fact, he was taken to Oflag IV C – Colditz – he said: ''I had never heard of it''. 

 

Dentist in Colditz

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Red cross food tins, often used to dig out the escape tunnels at Colditz

 

 

According to an old colleague at Colditz, Eric used to place maps drawn on rice paper into cavities in the teeth of prisoners preparing to escape. 

These were covered with a temporary filling, which was removed once the POW had escaped from the castle.

Although Eric never tried to escape from Colditz he was involved with other people's efforts.

One morning whilst Eric was working, three German soldiers entered the dental clinic. They removed the dental chair to reveal "surprisingly" a hole in the floor, which led down to a tunnel. The hole was filled in and nothing more was said.

The Colditz glider was made in an attic space beneath the steeply sloping roof. Eric fashioned part of the wings from floorboards but did not involve himself in the final plans.  

The glider was not discovered by the Germans but did not fulfil its purpose of escaping from Colditz castle. 

The Americans liberated Colditz on 16 April 16 1945, and Eric was transferred back to England after four years as a POW.


Post-war years

Eric joined the Maxillofacial Unit at Baguley (Wythenshawe) on the day that the NHS started in July 1948

He passed the newly introduced FDSRCS in 1950 and was later appointed as consultant to Preston Royal Infirmary, the Royal Albert Edward Infirmary in Wigan, Blackpool Victoria Hospital, the Royal Lancaster Infirmary and the North Lonsdale Hospital in Barrow. 

In fact, his contract included duties in 83 hospitals altogether, an impressive career, "...and during the first few months I managed a reconnaissance of them all." 


Living life to the full

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Eric Cooper at his home near Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight

 

 

Remembering the hunger during his time as a POW Eric was motivated to establish a small farm in the village of Nether Kellett near Lancaster. 

Always conscious of how quickly a country can run short of food, Eric owned a cow, pigs and chickens and grew fruit and vegetables. 

He married Joy and they had three children. 

His colleagues remember him as a gentleman surgeon. He was innovative, with one assistant often sent to the local hardware shop to purchase a bag of screws. 

These were used (after being sterilised) to fix fractured mandibles – years before this became standard practice!


Later life and his retirement 

Eric treasured his freedom and enjoyed travelling after retirement in 1974. 

He often claimed to have "the best job in the world". Once in the middle of the night travelling to Barrow to repair a broken jaw, he stopped the car to look at the view. 

The moon was shining on the snow-capped mountain peaks. "Life could not have been kinder to me." 

 

 

Quotes are from an article by Colin Davis who interviewed Eric Cooper for the British Dental Journal, 1995;179:157-159.

 

BDA Museum

The BDA Museum has one of the largest collections of dental heritage in the UK. Spanning the 17th to the present day, highlights of the collection include dental chairs, drills, oral hygiene products, and the infamous ‘Waterloo’ teeth. 

The BDA Museum is located at 64 Wimpole Street, London, W1G 8YS, find out more details and our opening times.