May 15, 2010

Old West Dentistry

Getting an infected tooth could be deadly in the Old West. The frontier was generally an inhospitable place, often lacking proper medical and dental care. When dental problems did arise, both Indians and settlers were forced to address them in a number of inventive ways.

In Indian country, tooth decay and gum disease were dealt with by several means. The medicine man was often called in to exorcise the "diseased spirits" from the afflicted party. In 1855, the Reverend William Leach observed one such ceremony. He wrote of a Pawnee medicine man who "danced around the patient in a semicircle, rattling a gourd. He took a small stone knife and cut an 'x' on Running Wolf's cheek, directly over the throbbing tooth. He sucked at the cut lightly, pretended to draw out the fang...then dashed it into the fire. 'The Evil Spirits cannot use it again,' he said triumphantly!"

Uh. . .yeah, some how I don’t think that helped much.

In a more scientific vein, the Indians also employed various herbs, roots and grasses which were sometimes heated and then placed on the offending tooth, much like an analgesic salve.

Pioneers used different avenues in dealing with their dental problems. Most chose the do-it-yourself method, seeking relief through the countless medicines hawked throughout the West.

"Many dental patent medicines contained acids, abrasive substances, alcohol and/or narcotics, such as heroin, cocaine and morphine," reports The Journal of the History of Dentistry (November 2000). One such product, The Journal notes, was Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup – "intended to quiet a fretful child during the teething process" – but which "contained generous levels of alcohol and morphine sulfate which could cause coma, addiction or death in an infant."

Extraction was the mainstay of Old West dental treatment. Offending teeth were pulled by anyone who could reasonably handle a pair of tongs. The list included barbers, blacksmiths, druggists, and physicians.

Famed gunfighter John Henry "Doc" Holliday (1851-1887) was undoubtedly the Old West's most famous dentist. Holliday was, in fact, a trained professional, earning his DDS degree in 1872 from the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery. One of Holliday's greatest accomplishments took place during his first year of dental school. He fashioned a swaged gold crown for a six-year-old girl which reportedly lasted until 1967 when the patient died at age 102. Also during that first year the young Holliday performed 38 tooth extractions and 32 fillings.

Following graduation, Doc Holliday moved to Dallas, Texas, where he opened his own dental practice.

Here’s a list of some early tooth care practices:

To Freshen the Breath:
• Goat’s milk; white wine; old urine (1st Century C.E.)
• Strawberries (19th Century)

To Protect Against Toothache:
• Pills made of grated garlic and saltpeter, inserted into the ear (3000 B.C.E)
• Wearing bones picked from wolf excrement (1st Century C.E.)
• Washing teeth with tortoise blood three times a year (1st Century C.E.)

To Heal the Gums:
• Ashes from burnt mice, rabbit or wolf heads, ox heels and goat feet (1st Century C.E.)

Items Used To Clean the Teeth:
• “Chew stick”—made from small twigs or tree roots (3000 B.C.E.)
• Linen towel (3rd Century B.C.E.)
• Paste made from burnt bread (18th Century)
• Paste made from dragon’s blood, cinnamon and burnt alum (18th Century)
• Charcoal (19th Century)
• Combination of myrrh, honey and sage (19th Century)
• Combination of cuttlefish bone, cream of tartar, drop lake and clover oil (19th Century)

Sources: The Wisdom Tooth Site and the Oral-B Learning Center

Can you understand why the life expectancy in the 19th century was around 40? Kind on makes you glad you live in the 21st century, doesn’t it?

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Brenda said...

I would love to read those books! Please enter me! dancealert at aol dot com

brendalottakamaggiebrendan said...

Good post, Vickie. I always enjoy reading how they dealt with health issues back then. I'm glad we have so much medical technology now.

Sylvia M. said...

I signed the guestbook, but my post hasn't shown up yet.

Wow, that dentist sounds interesting. He's very handsome too! You should use him as a model for your next hero. Go ahead and make him be a dentist.

Vickie McDonough said...

Hee hee, you have me chuckling, Sylvia. That dentist is Doc Holliday. I never thought about using him as a hero model though. He's a bit older than most of my heroes.

Stephen Bly said...

Excellent, informative article on Old West dentistry. There's been desperate times with my own tooth problems that I wished for the old time remedies, as the modern ones didn't work all that well!