16 November 2012

Medicine: A Brief History of Dentistry (Don't Let Your Cowhand Get a Toothache)

by Jacquie Rogers and Dr. Kenneth J. Hamada

A few months ago, one of my molars broke off below the gumline and abscessed. Boy-howdy, did it ever hurt! But not to worry, I made an appointment with my favorite dentist and four hours later, I felt better than I had in a week. For us, this is not uncommon and we take dentistry for granted. Yes, most of us aren't exactly thrilled with dental appointments, but we're not writhing in agony for months on end, either.

Not too many years ago, the infection in my molar could have killed me, and many did die of conditions caused by dental issues. Anyone who has had a severe toothache knows how happy you can be to see your friendly local dentist. Granted, my dentist is top-drawer, but dentistry in general is such an improvement over the available technology in the Old West that anyone, anywhere today can be relieved of pain.

I know very little about the history of dentistry, so I asked my aforesaid favorite dentist to write an article about it.  Here it is, a short overview of the history of dentistry. Be happy you live in 2012!

Dr. Kenneth J. Hamada, DDS

History of Dentistry:
A Brief Overview
by Dr. Kenneth J. Hamada, DDS

Dental treatments have been done for as long as toothaches occurred. They ranged from prayer or incantation, advancing to many dubious treatments such as bleedings, leeches or acupuncture. There were a plethora materials packed into the tooth to stop tooth aches such as wood, ivory, gold leaf, bees wax, gum and arsenic, to name just a few.

Arsenic was used in the first root canal treatment in 1930s.  Of course it is not known if it killed or cured. The most common procedure was the extraction of the tooth with a primitive instrument from the 14th Century, made by a blacksmith, called a Pelican (much like a pick or lever) to dig the tooth out, most likely leaving much of the tooth or breaking the jaw or causing other numerous jaw problems. The extraction forceps weren’t developed until the 1800s.

The dental treatments were performed by medicine men, barbers, barber-physicians and of course most commonly, the charlatans. In the late 1700s England, anyone could become a dentist without training, or pay as much as a $1,000 to learn the art. There were an estimated 2000 “dentists.”

Pelicans, Forceps, and Toothkey

Anesthetics came around with the discovery of laughing gas (nitrous oxide), ether, and chloroform that were used in dentistry in the mid-1800s. Cocaine was used in the late 1800s as an anesthetic, later Novocain was developed in the 1900s because it wasn’t so addictive.

One of the most famous dentists of the Old West was John Henry “Doc” Holliday, who graduated in Philadelphia 1872.  He practiced only a couple of years when he was diagnosed with “consumption” or tuberculosis and given only a couple of years to live. He went out west to extend his life in a drier climate and found gambling to be much more lucrative than dentistry, although it was known that he did on occasion practice dentistry.

Cocaine Toothache Drops for children

All of the modern niceties of dentistry were found mainly east of the Mississippi but not in the Wild Frontiers. It was only when cities became large; such as San Francisco and destination cities on the main routes of intercontinental travel, that dental services became more available. The Wild West did not have most of the niceties and had to revert to the more primitive forms of treatment, since there were no drugs, tools or dentists. Can you imagine the use of gun powder to cauterize a toothache; or trying to remove a tooth with anything available? Many people died from abscess or dental treatment, as they did in the early days of history.

It must be remembered that the high speed air driven drills, sharp one-use needles, good dental materials known today, weren’t being used consistently until the 1950s. People born in these later years can still remember the old belt-driven electric motors and big bore dull needles that were used over and over. Anesthetics are not always used in many of the Third World nations to this day, unless you have the finances to have such luxuries.

Thank you Dr. Hamada!

Jacquie Rogers again: I'm glad to live in an age where we can be free of chronic dental pain.  Of course, western historical romance novels rarely address dental problems, or eczema, or athlete's foot, or other such maladies that have plagued humans since the dawn of history, but it's still good to understand what people endured on a daily basis.

Even so, wouldn't it be grand to spend a week or two in the Old West?  Maybe experience a stagecoach ride through Wyoming's Wind River Canyon, a high-stakes poker game in San Francisco, a night in a bawdy house (ahem, just to see who's there), a visit to a mining boomtown, or a day or two on a cattle drive.  But please, not with a toothache!

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