From Ancient Egypt to the Nazis: 16 Horrors of Dentistry Through the Centuries
From Ancient Egypt to the Nazis: 16 Horrors of Dentistry Through the Centuries

From Ancient Egypt to the Nazis: 16 Horrors of Dentistry Through the Centuries

D.G. Hewitt - August 17, 2018

From Ancient Egypt to the Nazis: 16 Horrors of Dentistry Through the Centuries
The Etruscans were pioneers in cosmetic dentistry, including dental bridges. Pinterest.

The Etruscans – the Golden Age of ancient dentistry?

After the Romans came the Etruscans – and they had dentistry techniques that would not be seen for another 1,000 years. Above all, they were pioneers in dental appliances, fillings and bridges. While their predecessors might have balked at the indignity of losing real teeth and then replacing them with false ones, Etruscan dentists had no such reservations. And, thanks to the pleasing aesthetics of the false teeth of the time, their services were evidently extremely popular too.

The Etruscans were, for their time, incredibly enlightened. And this meant it was not a bad time to go to the dentist. During this time, dentists were learned men, often trained in medicine, rather than blacksmiths or barbers. They had a pretty good understanding of oral hygiene. Above all, they were pioneers in fillings and bridges. Putting to good use all the knowledge Etruscan scientists had either developed at home or taken from their travels abroad, the dentists would fill cavities with gold. Additionally, mummies from the time show that gold bands would be wrapped around the teeth and then soldered into place. These are the earliest examples of dental bridges.

But, of course, it wasn’t all progressive. All dental procedures would have been carried out without any anaesthetic. What’s more, any false teeth put in by dentists, even if they were held in by fine gold, would actually have been real teeth. Etruscan dentists would have used teeth pulled from slaves or criminals to fit into the mouths of richer patients. Or they would have taken teeth from corpses. There’s even evidence to suggest that animal teeth were used to fill gaps in human mouths. Clearly, while progress had been made, this was not a great time to need the help of a dentist!

From Ancient Egypt to the Nazis: 16 Horrors of Dentistry Through the Centuries
In the Middle Ages, traveling dentists were reliant on their reputation to pull teeth cleanly. Pinterest.

Medieval ‘dentists’ were often better than you might think

In Medieval Europe, traveling fairs were very common. Entertainers would go from town to town or village to village putting on shows to make a living. Such traveling fairs would also feature sporting competitions, markets and, in most cases, a man or woman who specialised in pulling teeth. The St James Fair, which toured the south-west of England, is a good example of this. Their ‘dentist’ was famed across the region and built a solid reputation for his services.

Like the man working for the St James Fair, traveling dental practitioners were reliant on their reputation for their livelihoods. For this reason, they needed to be skilled at their jobs. A man – or woman – who could extract a tooth quickly, with minimal pain and without the risk of excess and uncontrollable bleeding, would quickly gain an enviable reputation. Indeed, the history books show that, in many small towns and villages, people would endure the pains of toothache for many weeks or even months and wait for a well-respected dental practitioner to come.

To showcase their skills, some traveling dentists would go around wearing necklaces of teeth. Far from putting people off, this was instead seen as a testament to the number of patients they had successfully treated. Some of the more successful traveling dentists would also be able to afford silver forceps or other ornate tools, which they were only too willing to show off. Again, these were signs that a man was good at his ‘trade’ and could be trusted to get a tooth out without too much trouble.

From Ancient Egypt to the Nazis: 16 Horrors of Dentistry Through the Centuries
Barbers would also carry out simple but brutal dental procedures, often in a very bloody manner. Pinterest.

In Europe, barbers replaced monks as community dentists

During the earlier part of the Middle Ages, monks served as community dentists. This made perfect sense since they were usually the most educated men in the community, plus they offered the guarantee of divine protection, or at least the chance to get the Last Rites if a simple tooth extraction went bad (which was not unheard of). However, a Papal Decree issued at the start of the 12th century ruled that monks could no longer practice dentistry. As such, the role passed onto barbers, who would traditionally help monks with most dental procedures.

The fact that barbers usually used the same tools for cutting hair and beards as they did for dentistry shows how rudimentary such procedures were. In most instances, they simply pulled rotting teeth out using pliers, with little or no anaesthetic. Up until the 1400s, barbers would also carry out a number of other surgical procedures besides dentistry, including bloodletting, lancing abscesses and even performing amputations using crude saws. That’s why traditionally the barbers pole is coloured red and white – the red represents the blood lost during tooth extractions and the white represents the bone and gore of surgical procedures.

Over time, however, physicians started to get involved in surgery, and they became increasingly protective of their profession. By the 15th century, barbers were only permitted to perform some of the more simple and straightforward surgical procedures. They were, however, allowed to carry on their side trade in dentistry – and indeed, the profession of barber-dentist endured right up until the 19th century right across Europe.

From Ancient Egypt to the Nazis: 16 Horrors of Dentistry Through the Centuries
The Pelican was used by dentists for centuries and usually did more damage than good. The Science Museum.

Beware the “Dental Pelican”

For centuries, Europe’s traveling dentists used simple pliers for tooth extractions. The technique was as simple as it was brutal: the pliers would be clamped around the decaying or infected tooth and the dentist would simply yank it out. In many cases, he would require assistants to hold the poor patient down or would put his own foot on the patient’s test to push them back as he pulled. But then, in the 15th century, the French physician and surgeon Guy de Chauliac invented the ‘pelican’, a tool that was to remain in use for more than 400 years.

So-named because they were believed to look like a pelican’s beak, these instruments were actually quite varied in size and design. However, they all worked in the same way. The claw was placed over the top of the tooth and the fulcrum (a curved piece of wood or metal at the end) was placed against the gum. As pressure was applied to the gum, the tooth became increasingly loser and then could finally be removed sideways. The instrument was certainly effective. It was a great way of getting a bad tooth out with minimal effort on the surgeon’s part. However, it had some serious downsides.

Tooth extraction using the pelican was slow and, since it relied on pressure on the gums as well as the old-fashioned yanking of a tooth, it was extremely painful. Of course, there would never have been any anaesthetic to numb the agony. What’s more, this method would have often caused serious damage to the gums and to surrounding teeth as well. But then, this was good for business as it meant the patient would probably have to return for more treatment in the future. Despite its drawbacks, the pelican remained the go-to tool for dentists right up until the 18th century.

 

From Ancient Egypt to the Nazis: 16 Horrors of Dentistry Through the Centuries
Was Pierre Fauchard a true pioneer or a charlatan? Historians still can’t agree. Wikimedia Commons.

Pierre Fauchard: A dentistry pioneer or a fraud?

Pierre Fauchard is widely credited with being the ‘father of modern dentistry’. The French physician worked in Paris in the first half of the 18th century and it was there he penned and published the first textbook on dentistry. Here, he outlined the best procedures for not just extracting teeth but also for proactively preventing tooth decay and even for restoring teeth back to full health. Fauchard is also regarded as a pioneer in the fields of orthodontics and even tooth transplantation and his book influenced numerous physicians and helped establish dentistry as a proper branch of medicine.

To some historians, however, Fauchard was more a PR genius and hustler than a genuine progressive healthcare profession. He served as a lowly ‘tooth-puller’ for many years before re-inventing himself as a modern dental professional in fine clothes and with an exclusive address. What’s more, Fauchard and his contemporaries would push the view that the tooth-pullers were backwards and barbaric, while their methods were modern and even painless. Of course, given the tools available to them, they could never extract a tooth without inflicting significant pain on the patient. Indeed, for all their pretensions, Fauchard and the modern dentistes who emerged in 1750s Paris used almost the exact same techniques as the backstreet barber-dentists of the time.

Other critics go further and have called Fauchard and his peers ‘charlatans’. According to such views, they were simply old-fashioned tooth-pullers who convinced the French elite that they could give them beautiful smiles – for a price, of course. In this respect, they were the first real cosmetic dentists, making a fortune from vanity and often subjecting patients to unnecessary produces.

From Ancient Egypt to the Nazis: 16 Horrors of Dentistry Through the Centuries
Hundreds of sets of teeth were pulled from dead soldiers at Waterloo. BBC.

The Battle of Waterloo was a great day for dentists!

In 18th and 19th century England, the upper classes were living the good life. One of their biggest vices was sugar, imported from the Caribbean. But not only did the trade in sugar make many obscenely rich – albeit on the back of other people’s misery – it also made the teeth of upper-class gentlemen and ladies fall out. As a result, dentists were also getting rich, especially those who specialized in false teeth.

In most cases, dentures consisted of an ivory plate fitted with real human teeth. By the 1780s, such dentures were so popular that there was a genuine shortage of teeth to use in their production. And, of course, this led to exploitation. Poor people would sell their teeth. They would seek out backstreet ‘dentists’ (often nothing more than butchers or ironmongers) and have their front teeth extracted without any medication. They would be rewarded a relatively paltry sum for their troubles, but still, desperate times led to desperate measures being taken. But still, this wasn’t enough to satisfy demand.

Then, in 1815, the British met Napoleon’s army on the battlefield of Waterloo in Belgium. The battle was hugely significant, and hugely bloody. Thousands of English, French and Prussian soldiers lost their lives as Wellington led his troops to victory. And once the battle was over, the looting of the bodies began. Both surviving troops keen to supplement their poor pay, as well as enterprising locals, took pliers to the battlefield and pulled out as many teeth as they could. And that was just the beginning of the gruesome enterprise.

The looters would then sort the teeth out. They would find teeth of similar size and colour and make complete sets, which they would then string together. These sets of teeth would be boiled and the roots chopped off. Only then they would be sold to specialist dentists in London or Paris, to be made into dentures and fitted into the mouths of the wealthy elite.

From Ancient Egypt to the Nazis: 16 Horrors of Dentistry Through the Centuries
Thousands of people a year died in Victorian England as a result of dentistry gone wrong. Daily Mail.

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.

From Ancient Egypt to the Nazis: 16 Horrors of Dentistry Through the Centuries
Painless Parker brought affordable dentistry to the masses and made himself a fortune. Pinterest.

‘Painless’ 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 ‘Parker 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.

From Ancient Egypt to the Nazis: 16 Horrors of Dentistry Through the Centuries
For many years, richer families would have their own scrapers to remove plaque by force. The Science Museum.

For centuries, plaque was removed by brute force

Tartar and plaque have long been the enemies of dentists and oral hygienists. These days, they are removed by pressure cleaners or other modern tools, and the process is usually quick, efficient and, though uncomfortable, largely painless. In the 18th century, however, things were different. By this point, dentists had recognised the importance of keeping teeth clean of tartar and plaque, but they lacked the sophistication to carry out such treatments without resorting to brute strength.

In his arsenal, a dentist in Enlightenment-era Europe would have had a kit of ‘descaling instruments’. These varied in size, though the design was the same. With a sharp point at one end and a handle, usually made of ivory or mother of pearl or, if the dentist was not so rich and successful yet, of wood, these were used to scrape away plaque deposits. Like many dental instruments of the time, they looked more like woodworking tools than medical implements – and they were just as subtle. Since most patients would have had poor dental hygiene in general, teeth could be loose and gums sore, making the whole process even more painful.

According to some historians, some people might have had descaling instruments of their own and done their own teeth cleaning. However, given that dental hygiene was really only the preserve of the upper classes and the cost of such tools, it’s likely only the richest members of society were able to go plaque-free.

From Ancient Egypt to the Nazis: 16 Horrors of Dentistry Through the Centuries
Soldiers in the trenches were often treated in makeshift dental surgeries. The Australian Army

Dentistry in the trenches – yet another horror of World War One

In the history of World War One, dentistry is often overlooked – and understandably so. Nevertheless, the leaders of both sides soon learned that the oral health of their soldiers was of huge importance. After all, a soldier in constant agony from toothache would not be an efficient fighter and could even be a liability for himself and his comrades. From the early days of the Great War, then, makeshift dental surgeries were set up on the front line, with troops able to make use of brutal but efficient healthcare.

In the British Army, for example, generals soon wised up to the importance of keeping their soldiers’ teeth in good shape. Most of the men in the trenches were from working class backgrounds, and the vast majority had never seen a dentist in their lives. The oral health of the troops was, therefore, pretty poor to say the least. What’s more, the rations of tough biscuits were also hard on the teeth and led to a number of problems. Often, a doctor or other medic would be pressed into service as a frontline dentist. In some instances, a special dentist’s chair was fashioned out of planks of wood from the trenches. Here, the patient was just held down while the troublesome tooth was extracted – there really wasn’t the time or space for any more complex procedures.

The oral health of the British troops was given special attention after the Battle of Aisne in October of 1914. Here, General Douglas Haig came down with toothache and could not be treated. He had to travel to Paris to visit a proper dentist. After that, he contacted the War Office and ordered them to recruit specialist dentists into the army and get these men sent to the frontlines as a priority. Nevertheless, many men returned from the war with their mouths destroyed by the tough biscuits that were rationed out to the men.

From Ancient Egypt to the Nazis: 16 Horrors of Dentistry Through the Centuries
Qualified dentists put their training to evil use in Nazi concentration and extermination camps. Holocaust Memorial Day.

Dentists participated in the atrocities of the Holocaust

The horrors of dentistry are not confined to ancient times or the Middle Ages. In fact, one of the most horrific episodes in the history of dentistry came in the 20th century. During the height of the Second World War, qualified dentists worked at Nazi concentration and extermination camps. Here, they used their expertise to remove gold fillings from prisoners, with the money being sent back to help fund the Third Reich’s war efforts.

In 1959, Heman Pook, a German dentist, went on trial in Berlin. He was accused of using his professional skills to remove the gold teeth and fillings from the mouths of murdered concentration camp inmates. Addressing the court, Pook admitted carrying out thousands of such extractions, though he argued he was merely following orders. More specifically, along with several other qualified dentists, he took out gold teeth from the victims on the orders of Heinrich Himmler. The practice earned the Nazi regime millions of dollars a year.

In an interesting twist, in 2009, an historian found evidence to suggest that Adolf Hitler himself had benefitted from this grisly practice. According to this theory, the Nazi leader had 10 gold fillings put in over the course of 2010. It’s believed that the gold used for Hitler’s teeth was taken from the Jewish victims of the holocaust. The same research also found that Hitler’s personal dentist, a man called Hugo Blaschke, amassed huge quantities of dental gold – around 50kg to be precise – again, most likely to have been taken from the Nazi regime’s unfortunate victims.

 

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Dental pelican for tooth pulling, Europe, 1701-1800.” The Science Museum, History of Medicine Website.

“The dentures made from the teeth of dead soldiers at Waterloo.” BBC News, June 2015.

“Biscuit for breakfast – trench warfare was hard on soldiers’ teeth.” The Conversation, November 2016.

“The troubling history behind the healthy, happy smile.” The Spectator, May 2018.

“Man Was Enduring the Dentist’s Drill 9,000 Years Ago.” New York Times, April 2006.

“The History of Dentistry.” The American Dental Education Association.

“Dental History – an Overview.” Science Direct.

“A Brief History of America’s Most Outrageous Dentist.” Smithsonian Magazine.

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