âPainless’ Parker: A scourge or a savior?
Depending on who you were to ask, Edgar R.R. Parker was either a shameless, irresponsible quack or a much-loved helper of the poor. Certainly, the many thousands of people he treated for toothache or dental decay in the first few decades of the 20th century would have believed him to be a fine man. The American Dental Association, however, took a different view: they called him “a menace to the dignity of the profession”. So who was this important yet hugely controversial figure in the history of American dentistry?
Born in 1872, Parker graduated from Philadelphia Dental College (a school that would grow into the School of Dentistry of Temple University). Degree in hand, he went into private practice, but soon became disillusioned. After six weeks without seeing a single patient, he began to think outside the box. Not only did he start advertising in the local press, he also hired a former manager of P.T. Barnum to help him take his âParker Dental Circus’ on the road. It was a huge success. People would flock to his horse drawn-wagon. While they waited their turn, a marching band would play, adding to the carnival atmosphere while also (more importantly) drowning out the screams and moans of those in the dental chair.
Parker charged 50 cents for each extraction and even offered a patient $5 if it hurt. On a good day, he claimed to be pulling 300 teeth. And when a judge barred him from advertising his services as “painless”, he legally changed his name to Painless Parker. The American Dental Association’s disapproval did not harm him. By the end of his career, Parker owned 70 dental practices and was earning millions a year What’s more, history has been kind to him, too and he is seen as a pioneer in the fight for affordable dental care.