RECENTLY, one rainy afternoon, the younger members of our family were having great fun in trying to decide who was who in some newly-unearthed very old family photographs. One striking feature they all remarked upon was how dour everyone looked in those days – not a smile to be seen. The youngsters were astonished to be informed that this was thought to be because people then had very bad teeth and understandably had no wish for them to be seen.
Nowadays, all of us, at various times in our lives and for our own good, simply have to grasp the nettle and make an appointment to occupy the dentist's chair. This is the chair in which one sits right back, not to relax, but to endure the tender mercies of the dreaded drill, or worse still the horrendous hauling of the extraction pliers.
Granted, a visit to the dentist holds much less dread now than it used to years ago, even for the more nervous among us. The vast improvement in the modern equipment, such as the high speed drill allied to the expertise of the practitioner serves to expedite the treatment required, usually to the satisfaction of all concerned.
Leaving aside all of the old black humour of the " knee in the chest" stories of tooth extraction techniques, the dentist of yesteryear did have a really tough job. I remember, about forty years ago, a veteran dentist of many years experience , having just removed one of my molars complete with double abscess (ouch!) , telling me that on that very day he had just made up his mind to retire. He had been shocked to realise how many of his colleagues had suffered heart attacks, which he was convinced had been caused by constantly having to maintain such a severe downward manual pressure on the old slow speed drill, while standing in an awkward position over the patient.
The reputation of the profession of dentistry has always suffered somewhat at the hands of former patients who, far from being grateful for the relief of pain, delight in recounting tales of horror suffered in the dentist's chair, usually highly embellished for dramatic effect.
In retrospect, I suppose my own traumatic dental story is one which most people would find comical rather than horrific. I was being treated in an ultra modern surgery which took up the ground flat of a beautifully appointed villa, the upper floor of which was occupied as living accommodation by the dentist and his young family.
I was in the process of having a particularly painful and recalcitrant large back tooth removed. After a lengthy struggle taking the utmost care, the dentist had succeeded in pulling it literally half way out of my mouth. It felt like a tombstone protruding from my lower jaw. At that crucial point in the operation, there was a scream followed by a huge crash in the house. The dentist shouted out "oh fuck!" threw down his instruments and dashed out of the room abandoning me in the chair.
Mainly because I was very quickly beginning to choke to death I manipulated and managed to lift away the lubrication tube which was hooked into my mouth. I was left sitting there listening to the hubbub in the house for what seemed like an age and wondering if Groucho, Harpo and Chico would suddenly appear. It certainly was their zany type of scenario.
Eventually the dentist came flying back into the surgery shouting "sorry about that sir, be sure to tell me if the anaesthetic is wearing off" and without more ado and clearly being pumped up with adrenalin hauled my tooth completely out in one fell swoop.
It turned out that the dentist's young toddler son had managed somehow to open a child safety gate at the top of the internal staircase and had promptly taken a header down the stairs. Happily the babe was none the worse for his acrobatics. I must admit that I was the one who felt shattered and traumatised enough to find the thought of lying down in a darkened room for a few hours an attractive prospect.
I confess that had all of the foregoing fiasco happened to someone else I would have been one of the first to have a laugh!
I shudder to think of what it must have been like for patients undergoing dental surgery before the use of anaesthetics became common practice. As our Scottish National Bard, Robert Burns, who clearly was no stranger to the vicious pangs of toothache, puts it so powerfully in this extract from his "Address to the Toothache":
When fevers burn, or agues freeze us,
Rheumatics gnaw, or comics squeeze us,
Our neibour's sympathy may ease us,
Wi' pitying moan,
But thee! - thou hell o' a' diseases -
They mock our groan.
Anaesthesia were first experimented with and pioneered by dentists in the United States of America. The first dentist to use nitrous oxide as an anaesthetic was Horace Wells (1816-48) in the State of Connecticut. He used the gas to pioneer the painless extraction of teeth in 1844.
Two years later, William Morton (1819-68) a Boston dentist and pupil of Wells, invented the first anaesthetic machine. Morton's relatively simple device consisted of an ether soaked sponge housed in a glass globe. The patient inhaled the vapour through one of the two outlets in the glass globe.
On the 16th of October 1846 in Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, a twenty-year-old man was successfully anaesthetised and a tumour on his jaw removed painlessly. News of this success quickly spread and within a year surgeons all over the world were using the new technique.
When Morton unsuccessfully tried to patent his invention, however, medical and public opinion regarded this as greed on his part and severely turned against him. He was ostracised by his peers and died in poverty, a rejected and broken man.
And you thought toothache was bad!