In Victorian England, a trip to the dentist could prove fatal
A number of medical advances were made in Victorian-era England, including significant advances in the field of anesthetics. But dentistry remained almost as brutal as it had been in the Middle Ages. Quite simply, if you were unlucky enough to suffer from tooth decay, and if the pain got really bad, then there was really only one option available: the tooth needed to be pulled. Or yanked out, to be more accurate. For even in the finest parts of London, tooth extraction was carried out by local barbers or blacksmiths – after all, they usually had the tools for it.
Since many so-called dentists operated out of dirty workshops, including blacksmiths’ workshops, conditions were far from hygienic. Unsurprisingly, then, infections were commonplace. In fact, while you may enjoy some respite from the pain of toothache, getting a backstreet extraction could lead to even greater problems. Nobody knows exactly how many people died from botched treatment, infections and other complications such as excessive blood loss, at the hands of unqualified dentists. However, in London alone, it’s estimated that tens of thousands of people lost their lives after seeking treatment for rotten teeth during the Victorian era.
Things did, however, get a bit better after 1878. That was the year that the Dentists Act was passed by the British parliament. From that point onwards, only properly qualified practitioners could use the title of ‘dentist’ or ‘dental surgeon’. Of course, while richer members of society were able – and happy – to pay for the services of a dentist with the proper training and credentials, the vast majority could not. As a result, dentistry went underground. Blacksmiths and barbers still pulled teeth but did so illegally. In fact, it wasn’t really until the National Health Service was established in Britain in 1948 that the illicit trade in backstreet dentistry came to an end altogether.