by Tom McBride


Or; Why You Should Hug Your Dentist!

There are two common beliefs about dentists: that they grow rich and that they have high suicide rates. The truth is far more tangled. Although studies draw opposite conclusions about dentists’ suicide rates, there is ample evidence that they are more depressed and anxious, and feel more isolated than do members of the general population. Dental school is costly, and the debt incurred to go there, and then to set up one’s own business, can be huge. Dentists often strain their backs and shoulders to get into treatment positions, and the results can pile up to the point of serious orthopedic agony. Dental patients are nervous, and even the most serenely skilled dentist can get worn out trying to reassure them while holding a drill all day. Lots of Americans have no dental insurance, so dentists face tooth and gum problems that have been put off for patients who can’t afford what they really need. Perhaps worst of all, a dental office is not one that most Americans look forward to visiting and that few want to go back to. THE MINDSET LIST OF MOLAR MECHANICS draws two conclusions. First, after you read about tooth treatments before modern dentistry, you should go out and hug with gratitude your current eyetooth engineer. Second, ancient and medieval tooth treatment would seem awful to those of us in 2023, yes, but at times more effective than you might have thought.  Some of it might have worked—sort of. Even so, love your dentist for being modern. (This list is dedicated to Dr. David Foulkes, renowned D.D.S.)  

1 Neanderthals likely tried, somehow, to manipulate decayed or missing teeth over 130,000 years ago: you couldn’t gum roots and berries just all the time!  

2 Evidence of a tooth replacement with a bamboo peg (tapped into the bone) goes back 4,00o years ago in present-day China.

3 An Egyptian cadaver from 2,000 years ago had some sort of precious metal peg to sub for a lost molar.

4 Some mummies have “teeth” made of ivory—hey, it was good enough for the elephants.

5 The first dentists were Etruscans, who, 2500 years ago, carved false teeth from the denticles of dead mammals.

6 A 1600-year-old Mayan woman replaced her lost incisors with sea shells—they likely looked better than they worked.

7 Ancient Chinese wrapped tiny parchments around painful teeth—they contained prayers that the “tooth worm” might somehow go away.

8 A leading cleaner of teeth across the ancient world was the chewing of roots and twigs.

9 The ancient Greeks, in addition to their excellent pursuit of philosophy and drama, also devised pliers for the extraction of teeth.

10 A couple of other ancient treatments: relieving tooth pain by boiling worms in oil and putting the resulting greasy substance into the ears and correcting loose teeth by attaching a frog to the jaw, tightly of course.

11 The more things change, they more they don’t: Wealthy people in ancient Egypt were more likely to suffer from tooth problems because they were the only ones able to buy sweets.

12 The wealthy of the ancient world often had combination ear and tooth pickers made of silver or gold—the poor had to get along with pickers made of bone.

13 A common medieval belief was that dogs’ teeth boiled in wine made for an excellent mouth rinse: this does not mean that you should re-name your dog Scope.

14 The Chinese invented the first toothbrushes—made of coarse hog hair and attached to bones or bamboo sticks—about seven centuries ago.

15 One and one-half millennia ago some poor and toothless souls thought that a tooth obtained from someone else—ideally a hanged criminal—could be implanted if only there were some way to keep it in the mouth long enough.

16 In 1799 the Spanish painter Goya depicted a famously morbid version of this protocol: the insertion of a criminal’s tooth into a respectable man’s painfully dug—and very deep–gum socket.

17 The Middle Ages, known for great cathedrals and angels dancing on pins, also achieved a notable lack of sugar and therefore a low incidence of tooth decay.

18 1200 years ago, denizens of such places as Galway, Oxford, Paris, and Florence were in happy possession of the diet your dentist recommends today: high in calcium via vegetables and milk.

19 Some teeth still didn’t make it, but your local barber could pull it for you with pliers called “pelicans.”

20 Barbers also had “tooth keys,” shaped like house keys, to loosen teeth before extraction: this was as close as anyone got to an anesthetic.

21 Medieval halitosis was a problem, but pastes and mouthwash concocted from such substances as wine and vinegar, rosemary and sage, often came to the rescue, and sweet-smelling breath was a young lover’s erotic advantage.

22 Dentures were more common among the poor rich (who could afford sugar) and generally consisted of animal bones and the teeth of the freshly deceased.

23 Some folks became a little too zealous, and rubbed their teeth with a powdered pumice stone, brick, or coral: cleaned the teeth at the expense of the enamel.

24 The Mona Lisa has a celebrated sight smile, but it is toothless, perhaps for a good reason.  

25 When she was 64, Queen Elizabeth I had to cancel an appointment with the French ambassador due to a “swollen face,” and when he finally got in to see her, he said he could barely understand her because there were so many more yellowed teeth on one side of her mouth than on the other.

26 In Shakespeare’s day the wealthy made their teeth black with coal as both a cosmetic and a status symbol.

27 In one of Shakespeare’s most famous speeches—The Seven Ages of Man—the last stage is marked by being “sans teeth, sans everything.”  (By the way, in that speech “we rot from hour to hour” is a pun on “we rot from whore to whore.,” as Shakespeare might have had dirty teeth but surely had a dirty mind.)

28 We know nothing of Shakespeare’s teeth, but he was born just in time for sugar to become widely available in Europe and had one of his characters compliment another for using “eglantine and eucalyptus” to freshen her breath.

29 George Washington suffered the agonies of the damned with his aching teeth and inflamed gums and poorly-fitting dentures, and attributed his misery to cracking too many walnuts in his boyhood—but his mercury-based treatment for smallpox probably didn’t help.

30 “Operators for the Teeth” was the first dental textbook published in English (1685), but it no more studied in contemporary dental schools than leeches are used in modern medical ones.

31 Pierre Frauchard, a French surgeon, forged the first specially-dental instruments and founded the first dental society yet he is rarely thanked by history or patients alike.

32 The first explicitly dental “practice” opened in America before the Revolutionary War.

33 While Napoleon was losing the battle of Waterloo, an American dentist started recommending waxen silk thread to use as something called “floss” between human tusks.

34 The 1800s saw the birth of Colgate and anesthetic (laughing gas, sometimes called by its much less sexy name of nitrous oxide).

35 American soldiers during World War II were required to brush their teeth twice a day—couldn’t have tank officers or bomber pilots with toothaches.

36 As early as 1945 an American city (Grand Rapids) introduced fluoride into the water supply, and other cities followed suit, despite some public fears that such additions were Communist plots.

37 By the 1950s kids had stopped boasting about riding their bikes with no hands and started bragging to their mothers that they had no cavities.

38 Today DMFT scores (D for decayed teeth, M for missing ones, F for filled ones) are reported by every nation, with Danish teeth the best of all—those Danish breakfast treats notwithstanding.

39 These days your Molar Mechanic (for a price) can find your cavities with lasers, put invisible braces on your fangs, design your bridges using digital technology, and implant brand new incisors and wisdom teeth.

40 The bad news: you are not a world-historical figure like Queen Elizabeth and George Washington; the good news: your fillings won’t fall out.

They who lose all teeth have no chairs left in the dining room.” –Anonymous

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