Early Dentistry

” The extraction of a tooth should never be very sudden or quick.  .  .When an upper molares [sic] or grinder is to be extracted, the patient should be placed or seated very low, with the head resting upon the operator’s knees, if an underone [sic] is to be removed, the patient should be placed on the height of a common chair and the head placed upon the operator’s breast, who should firmly and securely clasp it with his left arm.  Thus positions effectually secure the patient from struggling, and thereby retarding or preventing the successful completion of the operation.”

–R. C. Skinner, A Treatise on the Human Teeth, (1801)

Town tooth drawer, published by William Davison, early 19th century (BDA Museum, ref: 10472)

Most early dentistry focused on using a pliers-tool to extract rotten teeth. Little was done by way of prevention. Town tooth drawer, published by William Davison, early 19th century (King’s College, London, BDA Museum, ref: 10472)

Benjamin James, 1814

Title page of The Treatise on the Management of the Teeth, by Benjamin James, 1814. (Washington University School of Medicine.)

Medical treatises and cosmetic handbooks offered advice on how to best care for the teeth. The title page Benjamin James’ Treatise on the Management of the Teeth [pictured left] shows a man clearly in agony, with a bandage tied around his possibly broken jaw, and broken and irregular teeth protruding from his bloody mouth. This horrific image unfortunately is indicative of the state of dentistry in the nineteenth century.  The target audience of medical treatises were often dental surgeons.  Those seeking to learn more about their teeth would likely be confused by the conflicting advice offered by the professionals.

The image on James’ title page includes a number of dental instruments with a banner, on which is written a Latin motto that translates “relief to the distressed.” The instruments include a key for removing teeth, hand drill, file, pliers, and a set of dentures. Although dental treatises were numerous, they rarely discussed the health of the mouth; rather their focus was personal appearance.


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