White-Knuckle Adventures in Early Dentistry

I had a terrific fear of dental work up until my mid-thirties, when I found a dentist that uses nitrous oxide as a normal procedure. With the wonderful advances in dentistry since then, my  kids don’t mind going to the dentist at all. But I will always carry the memory of enduring those huge painful novocaine injections in my earlier days. Imagine having a rotten tooth before novocaine -or even dental science! Medical historian Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris of The Chiruegeon’s Apprentice explains that dentistry didn’t even exist as a profession for most of history. Doctors, or more likely, barbers, pulled rotten teeth.

It wasn’t until the 18th century that the science of modern dentistry began to take form. During this period, global exploration and trade led to major changes in the Western diet, particularly as sugar became more accessible and no longer a luxury product. Along with increasing lifespans, such dietary shifts led to greater dental problems, and doctors worked to find new ways of treating problematic teeth. But the methods themselves were often excruciatingly painful.

“The tooth key was first mentioned in Alexander Monro’s Medical Essays and Observations in 1742,” says Fitzharris. “The claw was placed over the top of the decaying tooth; the bolster, or the long metal rod, was placed against the root. The key was then turned and, if all went well, the tooth would pop out of the socket. Unfortunately, this didn’t always go according to plan.” In many cases, the patient’s tooth shattered as the device was turned, and each piece had to be individually pulled from their bleeding gums.  

Dr. Fitzharris talked to Collectors Weekly about the harrowing history of dentistry, including a close look at George Washington and his dental woes. 

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