Diversionary Thoughts for the Dentist's Chair
Here are a few bites of dental history to divert your thoughts in the dentist’s chair or when gathering courage to make that dental appointment.
The twanging tooth has transcended time and space from Africa to Zanzibar . Evidence found in the jaws of Egyptian mummies show that Egyptians suffered from the same dental problems as modern man and hieroglyphic records speak of "physicians for the teeth.” In Mesopotamia, records have been discovered that speak of the “worm” that caused toothaches. Besides medical treatment, magic rituals and chants were used to drive the “worm” away.
Hippocrates and Galen Endorsed Dentistry
Dentistry in Greece began about 500 BC and physicians like Hippocrates and Galen recognized its importance. There were Greek dental specialists who practiced in “dental shops,” extracting loose teeth with special forceps. To cauterize an infected tooth they would run a hot wire through it.
Romans Used Burnt Eggshells for Tooth Paste
The Romans were also tooth conscious and their literature explains how wealthy families had their teeth cleaned by slaves using small sticks – the Roman version of the toothbrush. They used tooth powers made from finely ground pumice or burnt eggshells. The Romans also introduced the idea of transplanting teeth. When a Roman soldier in Julius Caesar’s Army lost a tooth in battle, he would knock out a similar tooth from a prisoner’s mouth. Then he would securely fasten the tooth in his empty socket with wires or other handy fasteners.
In the Dark Ages Barbers and Witches Took Over Dentistry
Dentistry as a science ground to a halt in the Dark Ages. The dental advances of the Greeks and Romans were now confined to monasteries and monks became the chief practitioners of dentistry, often assisted by barbers. After a 12th century papal edict, monks were forced to give up dentistry and barbers and witches took over.
Witchcraft in dentistry was helped along by the fact that the people were superstitious about dentistry. One superstition had it that to cure a toothache or to regain a lost tooth one had to acquire a tooth from another person, preferably an executed criminal. Poor people selling their permanent teeth for pitifully low prices were another source of teeth.
Dental Peddlers Traveled the Country
The Pilgrims, Puritans and other colonizers of the New World brought their teeth and dental troubles with them, but for a long time there were no competent dentists to consult. Dental peddlers traveling in wagons through the countryside performed many extractions. They set up tents or booths in carnivals and circuses and people had their teeth pulled in front of large audiences. They also played loud music to drown out the screams of the patients.
In many parts of America, the blacksmith or the town barber would pull teeth. Barbers advertised in their windows – “Haircut 10 cents. Tooth pulled – 20 cents.” Folklore has it that dentist’s chair resembles a barber’s chair because so many barbers pulled teeth.
George Washington Didn't Have Wooden False Teeth
Revolutionary War historical stories about teeth that have proven to be untrue include the myth that Paul Revere was a dentist. He practiced dental arts, but he had no dental training. And George Washington does not look solemn in his pictures because he had badly fitting wooden false teeth. Modern scans have shown that his false teeth were made of gold, ivory, lead, human and animal teeth.
Laughing Gas Brings Dental Anesthesia
Around 1800, Sir Humphrey Davy, a famous English physician and scientist, discovered that a gas called nitrous oxide put people in a deep, pain free sleep. Professional entertainers of the time learned that this gas also made people behave as though they were drunk. They would call people from the audience up on stage to inhale the gas and soon the subjects would run around, sing, dance and make noises like animals. They laughed a lot too, so the gas became known as laughing gas.
In 1844, a dentist named Horace Wells of Hartford, Connecticut witnessed one of these exhibitions and saw a man who had inhaled the gas accidentally cut his leg. After the show, Dr. Wells talked to the man and discovered that he had felt no pain until the effects of the gas wore off. Dr. Wells saw the possibilities of using nitrous oxide in his practice, but first he tried it on himself. He inhaled the gas from a bag until he lost consciousness. Then a friend, also a dentist, extracted one of his teeth. Dr. Wells woke up feeling no pain. He used the gas so successfully in his practice that he is considered to be the father of modern day dental anesthesia.
Modern Dentists Have Sophisticated Tools
Dentistry has come a long way from “worms” causing toothaches and barbers pulling teeth. Modern dentists practice modern dental psychology which advocates keeping the patient out of pain and as alive as possible. Soft music purrs in the background, the receptionist is warm and friendly and the dentist has a soothing chair side manner. The Medieval witch brewed charms in her steaming cauldron under the light of the autumn moon to banish the evil spirits that caused tooth aches. Modern dentists use drills to repair teeth and technology drips from his or her fingertips.
Time Travel Transcends Tooth Terror
But human terror of dentistry is timeless. Patients have an easier time forgetting the present dentist chair when they are time traveling in the past. With the help of the Mesopotamians, Greeks, Romans, and Monks , modern patients can mix barbers, nitrous oxide and modern laser technology in a tangled web of floss that takes time and concentration to unravel . By that time the time traveling is finished, the fear has been faced, and the dentist is finished with his modern dental techniques.
Dentistry, a historical perspective, being a historical account of the history of dentistry from ancient times, with emphasis upon the United States from the colonial to the present period, Milton B. Asbell, Dorrence & Co, 1988.
The Excruciating History of Dentistry: Toothsome Tales and Oral Oddities from Babylon to Braces, James Wynbrandt, St. Martins Griffin, 2000