Dentistry in the Old West

          I’ve been blogging less regularly lately because I’ve been occupied with multiple dental visits.  As I pondered a topic for this week I thought it might be interesting to take a look back in time to see what kind of dental care was available in Victorian times.  While a number of treatments are quite ancient, many of the techniques we now use were first developed during the 1800’s.

          Gold leaf fillings were first recommended by Giovanni d-Arcoli in 1848.  Prior to that time fillings were comprised of such things as stone chips (ouch), turpentine resin (yuck), gum (eeewww), and metals.  Amalgams incorporating mercury were developed in the early 1800s.  While we all know these have been debated in recent years, the original reason for use of mercury does make sense.  Those with little mercury in them had to be heated to a high degree in order for the metals to bind (ouch).  Including more mercury in the mix made it possible to bind the metals at room temperature.  False teeth date back as far as 700 B.C. when the Etruscans made them out of ivory and bone.  They were secured in place with a system of gold bridgework. This actually seems like pretty advanced thinking for that time.

          The first electric dental drill was patented in 1875 and the patent for the dental chair followed in 1848.  Novocain, thankfully, came along in 1884.

         There’s historical evidence that about 2700 BC the Chinese used acupuncture to treat tooth pain.  In 1884, Carl Koller introduced the first local anesthetic used in dentistry, cocaine.  It wasn’t until 1905 that Novocain was developed by a German Chemist, Alfred Einkorn.  He was looking for a non-addictive, easy-to-use, safe local anesthetic to be used on soldiers during wartime.  Novocain never became popular for military use but it did become widely used by dentists.  In 1845, Dr. William Morton, initiated the use of anesthesia for tooth extraction.

         In the early days of the old west there were often few professional men in towns.  Dentists were often called upon to perform other duties such as healing the sick and wounded, serving as town coroner and/or undertaker, or treating diseased animals.

         One of the most famous dentists of the old west was John “Doc” Holliday, DDS, who was originally from Georgia and educated in Philadelphia.  Known more for gambling and gun fighting than dentistry, he crammed a lot of living into his 36 years of life.  He began practicing dentistry in Atlanta, but having contracted tuberculosis (or “consumption” as it was called at the time) he moved west and lived in various places in Texas, Las Vegas (New Mexico), Denver, Cheyenne, Deadwood, Dodge City, and Tombstone, Arizona.  The last years of his life were spent in Leadville, Colorado where his health continued to deteriorate as he became increasingly dependent on alcohol and laudanum.  He died in a sanatorium in Glenwood Springs, Colorado and is buried in Linwood Cemetery.  Legend has it that his last words were, “Now that’s funny.”

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