Horse and Buggy Dentistry

A third molar.

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This blog post is contributed by a dentist colleague, who has offered to submit a series of posts about dental options when no dentist is around.  Thats, wh2thdr, for a look into the past . . . and possibly the future.

He begins with a true story about Horse and Buggy Dentistry . . .

Let me relate a story that was told to me by an old timer (80+) probably 35 years ago. The tale was his memory of some tooth trouble that his dad was having and the way that it was taken care of. The story takes place in the foothills of South Carolina, probably in the 1890-1900 time frame. The locals in this area are the same self-reliant, tough, industrious breed that populates the Appalachian Mountains. (For reference to the type:  Cold Mountain Book and/or Movie, and Foxfire book series) The more I thought about this story over the years, I have come to realize that it was told through the eyes of a small child, some of the details that an adult would comment on are missing. All in all, it is as good a look at historic dentistry that I have from a first hand witness.

The story begins at the same general store in which it was being told. Dad and Son were on their Saturday trip for supplies in early spring. Dad had been having trouble with a tooth, so he notified the proprietor of the store that he needed the traveling dentist to come see him when he came into the area.

It was a matter of a few days, while the boy and his dad were plowing their bottom land field, that a man came riding up on horseback.  The old man related how the rider got down off his horse and after tousling the boys hair, the two adults struck up a conversation. They came to an agreement and the boy’s dad handed some coins to the itinerant dentist. At this point, Dad sat down on a stump and began to down a pint of whiskey that the dentist provided from his saddlebags. In short order, when dad was a bit tipsy, the dentist took a leather pouch from his saddle bags and unrolled it on the ground. In the open pouch were many pockets with all sorts of tools and pliers. At this point, the dentist turned the father to face the sun and standing behind the patient the doc tilted Dad’s head back against his side. With his elbow and forearm the dentist got dad in a headlock and using one of the pliers grabbed the tooth and began to rock tooth and head from side to side.

Now our story teller said that his dad was the bravest guy he knew. He let out only a few moans, but he did clench his hands till his arms quivered. In short order the bloody tooth was out, and the socket stopped with a folded piece of cloth. The Dentist used the last of the whiskey to rinse the pliers after they had been wiped clean of blood. The leather pouch was repacked and stowed in the saddle bags. Hands were shaken and the dentist mounted up and was off down the road to his next patient. Dad, after a short while, was back to himself and resumed plowing for the rest of the day.

Was the story true? I think it was; at least as true as any tale told after 75 or so years.  What is the lesson from the story? One, tooth pain can make one willing to do about anything to get relief. Two, dentistry can be done in the open air with limited equipment by a knowledgeable and trained practicioner. Three, we sure should be thankful to live in an age and time when that has not been necessary. Finally, get and keep your teeth in as healthy condition as possible. Most healthy adults can go for a long time without tooth aches if they keep up with needed treatment in a timely manner.

It is my goal to write a series of brief articles for Doc Cindy’s blog to help other health care practitioners and competent laymen to have a knowledge base of practical stop gap dentistry.

Copyright 2010 wh2thdr

Wade Hampton III. Library of Congress descript...

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About Cynthia J. Koelker, MD

CYNTHIA J KOELKER , MD is a board-certified family physician with over twenty years of clinical experience. A member of American Mensa, Dr. Koelker holds degrees in biology, humanities, medicine, and music from M.I.T., Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, and the University of Akron. She served in the National Health Service Corps to finance her medical education.
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3 Responses to Horse and Buggy Dentistry

  1. mathew says:

    UT Israel, followed by an academic semester at Ben-Gurion University with the Middlebury-Brandeis Hebrew immersion progr

  2. pa4ortho says:

    A reference on tooth numbering combined with what is the preferred pliers, alternate pliers/technique. keeping in mind a small kit for the alternate pliers would be helpful.

  3. Cynthia Sherlock says:

    I think we have been lulled into a false sense of the “good ol days” by TV and movies. The real thing is much more like the story I believe.

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