Dentistry in the dark days before novocaine

Ben Marks of Collectors Weekly says: "Hate going to the dentist? You won't after reading Hunter Oatman-Stanford's account of what a visit to the family jawbreaker was like in the dark days before novocaine.

Hunter spoke with medical historian Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris and National Museum of Dentistry curator (and dentist) Scott Swank, who regaled him with stories about how early dentists thought tooth worms caused tooth decay, and how early dentures were often made out of the syphilitic teeth of fallen soldiers, whose molars and incisors were routinely yanked from their skulls as they lay dead on bloodied battlefields."

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.

Notable Replies

  1. Before novocaine, didn't they have real cocaine? That'll do in a pinch.

  2. We learned in GCSE history that alcohol was often used for dentistry and surgery, but was often considered wimpy.

  3. Silly dentists -- they help keep things clean...

    One NPR story from ages ago that sticks in my head... An entomologist who studied bot flies had a larva in the palm of his hand and then he didn't see it, so he assumed that it had dropped to the floor or something... Quite a while later, he had some pain in his mouth and the dentist thought that he had an abscessed tooth, so he pulled it out. Nestled underneath the tooth was a big ol' bot fly maggot.

    Which brings me around to when I had an abscessed tooth (a big molar) as a kid and the dentist pulled it without any Novocaine (some mix-up with the assistant) -- I don't recall much, because I must have passed out pretty quickly.

  4. They also used to do tooth transplants for those missing their own. The implanted teeth in may have been yanked off a corpse, pulled because they needed it, or sold by the poor. Even George Washington tried it out:

    The following year, in May of 1784, Washington paid several unnamed "Negroes," presumably Mount Vernon slaves, 122 shillings for nine teeth, slightly less than one-third the going rate advertised in the papers, "on acct. of the French Dentis [sic} Doctr. Lemay [sic]," almost certainly Le Moyer. Over the next four years, the dentist was a frequent and apparently favorite guest on the plantation. Whether the Mount Vernon slaves sold their teeth to the dentist for any patient who needed them or specifically for George Washington is unknown, although Washington's payment suggests that they were for his own use.

    For some reason they skipped over Washington implanting his slaves' teeth in his jaw in my high school history class.

  5. ...But no michaelcaine

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