Friday, May 11, 2012

Don't Let Your Cowhand Get a Toothache

Last month on Cowboy Kisses, we discussed things we'd miss if we lived in the Old West. A week later, 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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Ginger Simpson said...

What a wonderful post. As someone who cringes at the mere mention and when I do go, must be sedated to the hilt, this makes today's dentistry look like a cakewalk. Now I feel like even more of a wuss. *lol*

Devon Matthews said...

Terrific post, Jacquie! Those medieval looking instruments give me the shudders. The instrument (I'm not calling it a needle cause it looks HUGE) they use to inject novocain these days looks nearly as bad. I can't tell you how many times I've read a western where the hero gets a tooth knocked out in a fight. He just spits it out and continues on, and that's the last you hear about it. I always wonder, don't his teeth have any roots?! ;)

Kaki Warner said...

Fabulous information! I'm always looking for different ways to kill off people (fictionally speaking, of course). How long would it take for a tooth to abscess to the point it killed you? I'm assuming that would lead to massive total-body infection, high fever, etc. Thank you so much for sharing this valuable information.

Caroline Clemmons said...

My grandfather had TB so my grandmother worked as a dentist assistant about 1917-18. She made her own false teeth that she wore the rest of her life. Scary post. Glad my dentist keeps up on all the latest and is good.

Peggy Henderson said...

Ok, my teeth are hurting just looking at those instruments. Toothaches have got to be one of the worst forms of pain. Imagine having your tooth yanked out without any anesthetic! Shudder. Thanks, Jacquie. You've reminded me I need to go visit the dentist. And don't hold back on the novacaine, please!

Lyn Horner said...

Great idea for a post, Jacquie. We need to remember that the Old West wasn't all romance. It was a dangerously rough life, and something like a tooth infection could debilitate, even kill the toughest pioneer.

Please express my thanks to Dr. Hamada for sharing his knowledge with us here on CK.

Ellen O'Connell said...

I did some pondering on this after reading DOC by Mary Doria Russell. She had Doc Holliday not only doing dentistry after he moved West but doing what struck me as pretty sophisticated dentistry for the time. It made me wonder about what was available, but I confess I never got curious enough to research it.

I grew up in the East, and let me tell you, it's not that long ago that pain control wasn't high on the average dentist's priority list. You were expected to endure a certain level of pain. The dentist I went to as a child didn't believe in novocaine unless a nerve was exposed or an extraction was necessary.

Anonymous said...

Thank you both for the informative if not a little frighteningn history of dentistry. Thank Dr Hamada for his time. Cheers rosheen

Anonymous said...

I have only spotty internet access so will hurry and write this before I lose connection. I'll pose some of these questions to Dr. Hamada. Not only is he a smart man, he's a good sport. :)

Yes, I've seen those westerns were a man spits out a tooth and keeps fighting. Maybe he is that tough, but I bet he's not that tough once the root rots and abscesses. The very thought of someone coming at me with one of those pelicans when my tooth hurt so much, well, I just shudder at the thought.

I'll check back in on Monday and see of I can get hold of Dr. Hamada about some of these questions.


mesadallas said...

A couple of years ago I read a book about archaeology work that is being done on Custer's men who died at the Little Big Horn.One thing that has been discovered is that a great many of them had teeth in horrible condition with many cavities and that they were also very heavy smokers smoking about one hundred cigarettes per day in order to cut down on the pain caused by their teeth.

Jacquie Rogers said...

Smoking to dull a toothache? Interesting. I'd think the sucking action would increase pain. I'll definitely have to ask about this.

mesadallas said...

The nicotine was thought to help with the pain.

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Calandra said...

What impeccable research on dental history! Well, it’s only natural for cowboys to experience toothaches too, and the best way to avoid this unpleasant experience is to have good dental health. Also, regular visits to your dentist can help, as they are the best sources for information and advice on proper dental care. As for dental issues in romance novels – not a bad idea!

Calandra Janocha

Trinidad said...

Aren’t we lucky we’re alive in modern times, when the dental instruments are a lot smaller, a lot less intimidating, and actually CLEAN?! I’m so thankful for dentist’s instrument sterilizers because their instruments are in and out of different people’s mouths constantly. They need to be sterilized and disinfected for obvious hygiene and medical reasons.

Trinidad Philipps

Julius Ainsworth said...

Thank you for sharing those lovely information! It is always good to know where and how things started, even the history of dentistry. Like Trinidad said, we are lucky to live in the modern world. I can only imagine how our ancestors dealt with toothache and those instruments. But I think the feeling is all the same. Old folks would agree that toothache is TERRIBLE. So, it is always best to take care of the teeth at all times. :-) [Julius Ainsworth]

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