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.