So I went to the dentist yesterday, and completely forgot about the blog post I’d planned to write!
However, in an effort to assume an attitude of gratitude toward dentistry, I decided to research what it would be like to go to the dentist in Victorian times.
Now I am very grateful.
The watchword for the Victorian era was “progress.” Modernization through science and automation allowed our Victorian forebears to live longer and better than their parents ever did. From the beginning of the 1800s to the middle of the 19th century, dentistry had progressed from the local blacksmith’s side business in un-anaesthetized tooth extraction using pliers to less painful procedures with better health outcomes for the patient.
Even though the practice of brushing one’s teeth had been known and practiced since ancient times (either by chewing on a fibrous stick or twig, or using toothpicks or little metal scrapers to clean the teeth, or brushing with a boar-bristle toothbrush and a paste made with salt and bicarbonate of soda), toothaches still happened – and often the only remedy available was extraction. In fact, problems with teeth were so common that in some areas, some people opted to have all their teeth removed just to avoid further pain.
This led to a good business in dentures which were made of wood (not a good choice since saliva would eventually turn the wood to mush), porcelain, animal bone, ivory, hardened rubber and even gold. Often real human teeth were used in the dentures: “Waterloo teeth” scavenged from the corpses on the battlefield, teeth robbed from graves, or the teeth of poor people who raised desperately needed funds by allowing someone to plunder their mouths.
In 1856, the College of Dentists of England was formed, largely through the efforts of a young dentist in Croydon, England named Samuel Lee Rymer. Across the Atlantic, by the 1870s American dentistry was being brought into the modern age by a Civil War-era practitioner named G.V. Black. Mostly self-taught, Dr. Black invented over 100 hand instruments and even developed silver alloys for restoring teeth. His system for classifying different types of cavities and how they should be filled is still in use today.
Dental anesthesia had also progressed from a swig of whiskey before tooth-pulling to other methods. Nitrous oxide, also known as laughing gas, was the first chemical used for pain relief, but Horace Wells, the American dentist who pioneered the practice, was not able to reliably provide the correct mix of gas and air.
Other solutions, including chloroform (also unreliable and sometimes leading to death), and liquid cocaine injected into the jaw (less dangerous but the needles were huge), were also tried.
As dentistry improved, practitioners were able to use drills to remove cavities – but the drills were operated by a foot-pedal, like sewing machines. This was better than extracting the whole tooth.
However, as one Victorian era writer noted, to avoid cavities one should eat whole-meal bread instead of refined white bread, and avoid sugary treats. Good advice even today!
Aren’t you glad that you didn’t live during the Victorian era? I am – at least in terms of dentistry!
Images: Foot powered dental drill : By Royalbroil – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4755880