A unique form of relief coming from the heavens

Nicolas Gouroff with a patient near the Piper PA-12 Super Cruiser piloted by his younger son, Pierre Gouroff. He could be playing dentist for the benefit of a photographer. Anon., “Dentistry by Air.” Flying, May 1948, 52.

Hello there, my reading friend. A word of warning if I may, today’s topic is slightly sensitive in nature. Let me explain. I have a feeling that, just like me, you are not always thrilled at the idea of paying a visit to a dentist. If so, just image yourself as a lumberman, miner or trapper living in some isolated area. A toothache there could be the stuff of nightmares, and this is where our story begins.

To be more precise, it actually began in the Russian Empire with a young man born in November 1895, Nikolai Nikolayevich Gurov. This student at the military school of medicine in Moscow enlisted in the army in August 1914, as the First World War began. He was soon sent to the Orenburg military hospital, an institution dating from 1744 located near the border of today’s Kazakhstan. In December 1915, Gurov was ordered to join an infantry unit of a Russian expeditionary force about to leave for France. He was wounded on two occasions, in March and April 1917, while serving at the front.

The Great October Socialist Revolution, which actually took place in November 1917, at least as far as France was concerned, shook the Russian expeditionary force to its very core. Discipline all but collapsed. In December, appalled by what he saw, Gurov joined the Légion russe des volontaires, or Légion d’honneur russe, a unit attached to the French Armée de terre. He served in the 1ère Division marocaine, the most decorated division of this service, and was wounded a third time, in May 1918. Once returned to health, Gurov served, in a medical capacity perhaps, until his demobilisation papers reached him, in December. He left the military having earned several Russian and French medals.

Nicolas Gouroff, a spelling presumably adopted around that time, married Hélène Masson, in Paris, in 1919 or 1920. He completed his studies at the École dentaire de Paris in 1920. Gouroff and his wife immigrated to Canada that very year. He soon enrolled in the Faculté de chirurgie dentaire of the Université de Montréal, in Québec, completing his post graduate studies in 1922. Gouroff opened a practice in Montréal soon after.

Gouroff joined the Canadian Dental Corps in the fall of 1939 or 1940. By the time the Second World War ended, in 1945, he was a major in that unit of the Canadian Army. From the looks of it, Gouroff spent the war in Canada, seemingly at a military camp near Saint-Jérôme, Québec.

Incidentally, Gouroff’s older son, Serge Gouroff (1923-1998), served in the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War. He too became a dentist, after the conflict, practicing for the most part in Pointe-Claire, Québec.

Following a suggestion made by the mayor of Saint-Jérôme, Gouroff moved to Val-d’Or, in the Abitibi-Témiscamingue area of northern Québec, in 1945 or 1946. Even though his practice steadily grew, he came to realise that many lumbermen, miners and trappers, some / many of them with families, had no access to a dentist. How this next phase of Gouroff’s career began is a bit unclear. It is this writer’s opinion that he used the opportunity made possible by the fact that his younger son, Pierre Gouroff (1927-2012), learned how to fly in 1947. This being said (typed?), Gouroff senior bought a brand new Fleet Model 80 Canuck, in October 1946. He sold this Canadian-designed single engine light / private airplane to Canadian Aeromotive Limited of Montréal a couple of weeks later, before it could be properly registered. And no, my reading friend, there will be no pontification on the Canuck. Bribes will not be accepted. This time.

Gouroff acquired the Piper PA-12 Super Cruiser floatplane shown in the photo at the top of this article in July 1947, from a gentleman who lived in Mégantic, Québec. Phillip Bulette had bought it in June from Cub Aircraft Company of Hamilton, Ontario, a subsidiary of Piper Aircraft Corporation, itself a well known American maker of light / private planes. Gouroff and his son Pierre began to fly to meet potential customers. The services of the “Flying Dentist,” a name painted on the side of the aircraft, were much appreciated.

Gouroff disposed of his Super Cruiser in early April 1948. A flying taxi service and flying school founded in 1946, British Columbia Air Lines Limited, took on the aircraft. The reason behind this sale was simple. Rapid weather changes often prevented Gouroff from keeping his appointments, either at his office or in the field. In July 1948, the “Flying Dentist” registered a Cessna Model 120 he had bought from a W. Finkelman. The latter took back this single engine light / private airplane, however, and re-registered it in July 1949. Gouroff’s flying activities apparently ended around that time.

Oddly enough, the January 1952 issue of the American monthly magazine Skyways offered to its readers a photo of the Super Cruiser. According to its caption, the “Flying Dentist” and his son were still in business. As we both know, this was not true. In any event, Gouroff seemingly moved to Gatineau, Québec, around 1959 but may have gone to Westmount, Québec, near Montréal, not too long after that. He died in May 1964, in Montréal, at the age of 68. It is worth noting that Pierre Gouroff also followed in the footsteps of his father. Initially a dental technician, he eventually became a denturist.

While yours truly could not resist digging into the history of Cub Aircraft, there is no need to put you through the wringer today. It’s a fascinating story, though, really, but if I may be allowed to paraphrase Morticia Addams in the 1991 dark comedy, The Addams Family, don’t torture yourself, my reading friend, that’s my job.

The author of these lines wishes to thank all the people who provided information. Any mistake contained in this article is my fault, not theirs.

P.S. It is worth noting that Nicolas Gouroff was not the very first flying dentist. In March 1933, two well known Alaska dentists, Lawler J. Seeley and Clayton A. “Doc” Pollard, acquired an airplane to visit some of their clients. That airplane was destroyed by fire in November of that same year. Another well known Alaska dentist, Bart C. LaRue, bought an airplane in 1940. He paid it mainly with the gold (dust and nuggets) and furs (fox and ermine) given to him by clients who did not have money to pay him with.

A dentist who had served in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) during the Second World War, Charles John Homewood, acquired a de Havilland Tiger Moth basic training airplane in 1946. His pilot, also an RAAF veteran, died with a passenger when this war surplus machine crashed in October 1951. Also in 1946, Australia’s world famous Flying Doctor Service formed a Flying Dental Service. The first dentist in this team was one G.P. Castles. The Royal Flying Doctor Service, as it is called in 2018, was mentioned in a February 2018 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee. And yes, there is a Tiger Moth or, mre exactly, a Menasco Moth in the collection of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa, Ontario.

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Rénald Fortier