Anne here. A week ago I had my first-ever toothache. It’s an abscess under a crown — my only crown— so... complicated stuff is going to be done. But the toothache itself, the pain (until the painkillers kicked in) and the swelling (until the antibiotics kicked in) took me completely by surprise. My jaw swelled up just like the kids who had toothache in the comics I read when I was a kid — remember? — they used to bind them around the jaw with a bandana. Well, that was me. For nearly a week I looked like a chipmunk.
Thanks to modern medicine I didn’t suffer too much, but it got me thinking about teeth and dentistry and what happened in the past. Pretty much all I knew was my grandma’s infallible method, the application of oil of cloves, which does actually help, if you have oil of cloves on hand, which I did.
In the comics and cartoons and stories I read in my youth, the only cure for toothache of this sort was to pull the tooth, and the methods ranged from tying the offending tooth to a door -handle (or car or runaway horse or whatever) and yanking it out with a sudden jerk. That or a gigantic pair of evil-looking pliers. And all without a sedative, let alone a nice numbing injection.
Of course, this wasn’t the reality of dentistry in my childhood — it’s funny, isn’t it, how the drama of those old fashioned approaches persisted in the stories and cartoons long after they’d ceased to occur in everyday life. I suppose attaching a tooth to a runaway horse is always going to be a better story than going to the dentist.
But having started thinking about it, naturally I did a little research, and found some fascinating stories. In some cultures people believed toothache was caused by tooth demons, or tooth worms, or humors (unbalanced body fluids).
I know it’s fairly widely believed among some readers of historicals that in the distant past, most people’s teeth were rotting in their heads by their early twenties — I’ve heard this cited as a reason why people don’t like medievals, for instance, because of the belief that everyone would either have horribly snaggled teeth or rotting stumps. But the evidence doesn’t support that. For a long time the main problem people had with teeth was not decay, but the wearing down of the enamel of the teeth because of the fine gritty material that was found in bread and because of the widespread habit of chewing bones.
And a common method of cleaning the teeth — from the Chinese to the Babylonians and the Romans — was a chew stick, a stick chewed at one end to fray the woody fibres and then used to scrub the teeth clean. This method is still used by many people in some African and Arabic-speaking countries. The ancient Chinese invented toothbrushes with bristles and French dentists were advising the use of toothbrushes in the early 17th and 18th centuries. Even flossing isn't new — it's been around forever.
It wasn’t until sugar began to be imported and was widely available, and flour became highly refined that gum disease started to become more common, and decay was found more often in the roots of the teeth.
We often think of dentistry as a very modern discipline, but it’s been around, albeit in some odd forms, for a long time. They were making false teeth back in ancient Egypt — attaching them to the person’s remaining teeth with gold wire. The ancient Romans quite commonly used gold crowns, and it was a Roman who first invented a drill for the teeth. Mind you, he also recommended the packing of the hole with a mixture of roasted earthworms, a medicinal plant and crushed spiders’ eggs, which strangely never really caught on.
Did you know there is a patron saint of dentistry? It’s St. Apollonia, who as part of the torture she endured for her faith, had her teeth smashed and pulled out in Alexandria in 249 AD. Her saint’s day is commemorated on February 9th.
In the middle ages, dentistry was the province of barbers, who also did a bit of surgery on the side. There were also “tooth-drawers” who traveled around the country attending the various fairs and performing their gruesome task in public to entertain the crowds.
I quite like the story of Queen Elizabeth the first, who in the winter of 1578 was, according to a contemporary account, "so excruciatingly tormented with that Distemper (toothache) that forced her to pass whole nights without taking any rest". Despite the pain she was suffering, and the lack of sleep, the fear of having her tooth pulled was worse, and she kept putting off the dreaded deed. Finally the Bishop of London, unable to bear the continued suffering of his sovereign, called on a surgeon, and had one of his own (few remaining) teeth pulled out in front of the queen, in some kind of show of solidarity and to encourage her to have it done herself.
In the meantime, think good thoughts for me on Wednesday, when I’ll be at the dentist having complicated things done. (I confess, I’m a bit of a wimp when it comes to dentistry and I always come away exhausted, as much from the effort of trying to appear brave as from being injected and drilled and whatever.)
So what about you — have you ever had a bad toothache? Want to share a dental horror story? Ever lost a tooth in an original or amusing manner? Are you the kind who rushes to the dentist at the first hint of a problem, or are you more like QE1 and tend to put it off?
PS, Stay safe, alll you facing tsunamis and hurricanes at the moment.