Tag Archives: dental practices

8 Old-Time Dental Procedures That Make Modern Folks Cringe

Dental practice has come a long way since its inception. Ancient dental practices were often painful at best and at worst completely unreasonable, as they often targeted the wrong symptom for dental health. Over time, dentists have rethought the way teeth are handled, inventing tools that are more efficient and less painful to the patient. In fact, while many people fear going to the dentist, modern dentistry has rendered procedures such as cavity fills and tooth extraction virtually painless and quick. Our ancestors that had to suffer through antiquated forms of dentistry would be highly envious of our pearly whites and how effectively we keep them healthy.

  1. Blood-letting

    Artifacts kept by the University of Virginia’s Historical Collections at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library give us insight into some of the odd and slightly terrifying blood-letting practices of earlier civilizations. Blood-letting was practiced by ancient Greeks, and remained in practice until the middle of the 19th century. People believed that any disease was caused by an imbalance of four humors found in the body — blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. In order to restore balance, the doctor would release some blood from the body. It may seem unintuitive that a toothache could be caused by “humor imbalance,” but people saw bloodletting as a cure for every ailment, including those which required dental work. Either an incision was made, suction cups were applied to the skin, or leeches were attached to siphon the blood out. Anywhere between 16 to 30 ounces of blood was removed. Benjamin Rush, a well-known physician in America in the 1800s, felt that four-fifths of the body’s blood could be safely removed, and was a staunch advocate of blood-letting as a means for healing.

  2. The First Tonsillectomy

    According to a lecture conducted by the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center, the first tonsillectomy procedure ever recorded was done by Aulus Cornelius Celsus in 30 AD. It was quite a antiquated procedure, in which the tonsils were simply scraped and torn out with a hook and scalpel. Tonsillectomies became slightly less barbaric in 1867, during which a physician named William Meyer performed an adenoidectomy by taking a ring forceps in through the nasal cavity. Today, tonsillectomies are done with clean, surgical equipment and anesthesia. Looking back on medical advancements can make one thankful for being born in a century of technology.

  3. Tooth Implants

    In 18th century England, John Hunter began transplanting human teeth from one mouth to another. The JASA Chronicle outlines some of his procedures in tandem with dental work done on the Austen sisters. If teeth needed to be extracted due to decay, they could be pulled out and the spare tooth that was lying around from someone else’s mouth could be inserted into the remaining hole. It would then be secured to a nearby tooth and would hopefully re-root itself over time. Hunter persuaded his clients to remove some of their teeth in exchange for money so that he had a large collection to choose from when a transplant needed to be made. Even teeth from the dead were occasionally used. Hunter would dig into his collection and try out several teeth before finding the perfect fit for the patient in need.

  4. Botched Anesthetics

    With the onset of root canals came a series of failed anesthetics. According to a thesis published by the Division of Restorative Dental Sciences at University College London, the first attempts to create anesthesia were done using arsenic. In 1836, a physician named Spooner used arsenic trioxide to devitalize the root, an idea he borrowed from ancient China. In 2700 BC, the Chinese also used arsenic to alleviate dental pain, but it also killed the patient in many cases. In 1884, arsenic was replaced with cocaine to devitalize the root or pulp. Ether and chloroform were also used at varying degrees around the same time period. Although nitrous oxide was discovered in 1773 by Joseph Priestly, it wasn’t used for anesthesia purposes until much later in 1844.

  5. Early Whitening

    World Watch produced an article on the history of toothpaste, in which the magazine delves into early forms of tooth whitening components. In the early 1930s, a whitening agent called Tartaroff was administered in an attempt to whiten the tooth. However, Tartaroff contained 1.2% hydrochloric acid, which did more harm than good. While the patient would have noticeably whiter teeth, just one use of Tartaroff could remove 3% of a tooth’s enamel, according to James Wynbrandt’s Excruciating History of Dentistry.

  6. The Dental Key

    The Ohio State University Library contains an old artifact used for dental extraction known as the dental key. In the 1700s, dental keys or tooth keys were used to remove teeth. This tool was modeled after a typical door key, and consisted of a handle, shaft, and pincers at the end of the shaft that gripped onto the tooth. The apparatus was horizontally inserted into the mouth with the claws at the end affixed to the tooth in question. The claws were then tightened to get leverage and the entire tool was rotated to pull it out of its socket. The original design was prone to mar the tooth next to the one being extracted, so slight modifications were made in 1765 by Ferdinand Julius Leber, in which the shaft contained a curve. According to the British Dental Association, an even better design was introduced in 1796 with a spring-catching claw able to swivel into multiple positions.

  7. Harmful X-rays

    According to Dr. Thomas Schiff’s Principles of Intraoral Imaging, X-rays were first discovered by Wilhelm Konrad Roentgen in 1895. However, Dr. Edmund Kells Junior was the first to use them for dentistry purposes. At the time, no precautions were taken with X-rays, and Kells noticed that enough exposure to an X-ray caused what appeared to be sunburn-like redness on the skin. Over time, Kells himself suffered as a result of X-ray exposure, with cancerous tumors on his hands from the 12 years that he treated patients without protecting himself from the radiation. At age 72, Kells committed suicide, but this was only after he had to lose his fingers, hand, and eventually entire arm due to the damage. The technology of Kodak film inserts instead of glass imaging plates helped greatly reduce the damage caused by X-rays, but such technology was not taken into effect until the mid-1900s.

  8. Head Gear

    Headgear was once used alongside braces for children with severe overbites or under bites that needed to have their jaws essentially re-aligned. The sheer humility of having to wear headgear was reason enough to find some sort of technological replacement. Children who are forced to wear headgear are often highly bullied, alienated by their peers. Headgear’s vice-like appearance makes it resemble some sort of medieval torture apparatus. Thankfully, headgear is becoming more and more rare now that dentists have developed things like Invisalign and other anchorage devices inside the mouth, which are far less offensive in appearance, if not virtually undetectable. As Dr. Nahal Ashouri says, “Dental headgear was used commonly some time ago. However, most orthodontists will not prescribe it today simply because there are equally good and far more acceptable options available today.”