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.