A Dental Memoir

Here in the year 2011 it is easy to forget just how different life is than just a few

Tom McLaury, Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton (...

The Clantons, after the gunfight, via Wikipedia

generations ago. I was reminded of this when Indiana Jen posted on the 1887 anniversary of the death of a famous dentist, one “Doc” Holliday of Tombstone fame.Ironically, only three years before Doc died, a bright and daring doctor in New York City, one William Halsted, performed the first surgical experiments using cocaine as a local anesthetic, something that would lead to the later use of “Novocaine”, a trade name for procaine. But in Doc Holliday’s day and in all the years prior, dentistry had to have been an exceedingly painful practice.

Thanks to Wikipedia I know that there is evidence of dental operations going as far back as 280 generations, or 375 generations. That would make at least 370 generations who endured extractions without the benefit of local anesthetic. Ouch. Think of the evolutionary implications of this. When humans were simply hunter-gatherers without metal tools, when they lost their teeth they had to have been pretty much tiger-bait, huh? One theory holds that homo sapiens made a significant leap forward in the preservation of collective wisdom from family units with grandparents. Makes me wonder if dental practices might have played a roll in preserving some of those oldsters.

I found this paragraph of particular interest regarding the history of the dental profession,

A Dental "Pelican", for extractions

Historically, dental extractions have been used to treat a variety of illnesses. During the Middle Ages and throughout the 19th century, dentistry was not a profession in itself, and often dental procedures were performed by barbers or general physicians. Barbers usually limited their practice to extracting teeth which alleviated pain and associated chronic tooth infection. Instruments used for dental extractions date back several centuries. In the 14th century, Guy de Chauliac invented the dental pelican (resembling a pelican’s beak) which was used up until the late 18th century. The pelican was replaced by the dental key which, in turn, was replaced by modern forceps in the 20th century.

I think my morbid interest in the subject might be due to having seen an old Dustin Hoffman movie, “Marathon Man“, in which he was tortured with a dental drill by an ex-Nazi scientist, inspired by Josef Mengele and brilliantly played by Lawrence Olivier. The scene survives in my memory despite all efforts to forget.

A little searching reveals that the first dental school in America was founded in 1840 and that the first use of anesthesia for that purpose, nitrous oxide, was probably in 1844. There is a fascinating web site on the history of the practice , including pictures of numerous instruments sure to give you the creeps.

I’m not sure just when dentists started using procaine routinely but I can tell you that not all of them did at the time I was a boy, at least for filling cavities anyway. That was in the 1940’s and I can just (barely) recall having a cavity filled without the use of a local anesthetic. It scared me, hence the persistent memory and hence, no doubt, the added impact of “Marathon Man” on me some 3 decades later. The sound of that dental drill! Gives me the shivers even now. But I doubt somehow if it bothered Doc Holliday much in his day, a mere 5 generations ago. I don’t know if Doc used nitrous oxide, but I’m thinking not. He was a tough guy, and if I remember right, he was in his cups most of the time anyway. He probably offered the same distilled remedy to his patients.

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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3 Responses to A Dental Memoir

  1. John Erickson says:

    That’s supposedly the reason for the traditional barber pole – they wrapped the white pole with the bloody red towels from their various work beyond haircuts. (Betcha THAT just gave you a shiver!) Thankfully, the only time I’ve had major work done (beyond the one cavity drilled under a local) were 4 wisdom teeth removed while I was completely under. Nice, until I had an allergic reaction to the anesthetic.
    Better than the old “tug and yank”, though! 😀


  2. PiedType says:

    I must have had an early dental experience like yours, or just a very inept dentist, because just the world “dental” in your title was enough to make me think twice before coming to check out the post. All I can say now is I’m very glad I never saw “Marathon Man.” The only thing that gets me to the dentist at all is the fear that not going could result in something even worse.


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