Because Americans have access to modern dental care, we tend to take for granted that trips to the dentist are largely fear and pain free, but this wasn’t always the case. Although access to quality dental care in West Michigan is good today, people in many parts of the world still suffer when their teeth decay, and it was only a few generations ago that dentists were drilling cavities with drills they ran by foot power – not electricity.
How bad did it used to be? Back in the 1800s the only places in America that had “professional” dentists were large cities on the Atlantic Seaboard – Boston, New York, Atlanta, among others. People in rural areas had to rely on a more itinerant practitioner, a “dentist” being anyone who could get together a small pack of tools and some bones to carve replacement teeth from. These people would travel around offering tooth-pulling services, and they used a tool called a turnkey to do it. This was a metal hook that would latch onto a bad tooth and wrench it out. If the user didn’t work the turnkey just right, he might pull out part of the jaw as well. Imagine what kind of pain people had to be in to let a stranger put a metal tool in their mouths and yank. At this time the only anesthetic used would have been whiskey or moonshine.
As the twentieth century wore on, dentists became actual professionals who graduated from college. States passed mandatory requirements both for dentists and other dental workers like hygienists. In Michigan this happened in 1939, and it meant that the person looking in your mouth was now someone who had studied anatomy and learned from other professional dentists. The tools they had to work with were still fairly primitive, however.
Dental x-rays began to be offered as early as the 1920s, but dentists and patients exposed to radiation sometimes suffered burns, hair loss, and other health problems. C. Edmond Kells, one of the first American dentists to experiment with practical applications for x-rays, lost his fingers, hand, arm, and eventually his life because of this.
Foot-powered dental drills were available from the 1870s on, but they were slow. The dentist had to pump and drill at the same time or rely on an assistant. Sometimes the next patient in line pumped the pedal and got a front-row seat to this kind of dentistry. Many people avoided the dentist because the treatments were so painful, and it was a pattern for people to have lost most of their teeth by the time they were old. Dentures were very common. After the introduction of fluoride to the water supply of many cities, including Grand Rapids, and toothpaste, the reverse is now true. Seniors today still have many or most of their own teeth.
Today there are few dental problems that cannot be addressed quickly and safely in the dentist’s chair. Additionally, with the use of anesthesia, these treatments are largely pain free. Dentists do not spend their time pulling teeth – they focus on saving the teeth people have and on educating their patients on how better to care for their oral health. Technology has revolutionized the dentist’s chair experience, and dentists now have access to a variety of treatments and options that dentists a few generations ago could have only dreamed about.
There has never been a better time to have problems with your teeth than now, so don’t let fear of the dentist stop you from getting treatment and relief from pain. If you have questions about how you can take better care of your teeth, ask your dentist or hygienist during your next routine appointment. They can also advise you about cosmetic options to straighten or whiten your teeth.
That is certainly something to smile about!