Long before I knew that working in the museum field was even a possibility, I wanted to be a dentist. In high school I spent a summer working at the UConn School of Dental Medicine, and when I went off to college I was all set to go pre-med, but that’s another story… So it was a dream come true when I got to research the history of dentistry for the exhibition This Won’t Hurt a Bit! A History of Pain Relief.
When I started combing through the collection looking for medical and dental equipment, I was surprised to find that CHS had a decent amount of dental-related material— including at least 5 tooth-keys that were used for extracting teeth from about 1750-1840. They were called keys because they looked like old turnkeys and used the leverage from turning to pull out a tooth. One of the more rare dental-related objects in the collection is Horace Wells’s Day Book A. Wells was a dentist in Hartford from 1836 through the mid-1840s. This book covers 1841-45 and in it he listed his patients and the procedures he performed on them. One of the most extreme is this passage for Lucian Burleigh who had 17 (!) teeth filled and 1 pulled—imagine that without Novocaine!
Wells also wrote the book on teeth in 1838, or rather An Essay on Teeth; Comprising a Brief Description of Their Formation, Diseases, and Proper Treatment. This is one of the first known print sources to recommend regular tooth brushing, and to modern eyes it’s surprising to read,
“There still exists a prejudice against the use of a brush, for the cleansing of teeth.”
Another curious object from the CHS collection is this gold capped tooth. It was found on a shelf in collection storage, with no identification number on it and—so far—nothing has turned up in the files. (Check out Karen’s post for an example of how CHS documents and tracks objects today.) Gold was and is a superior material for filling and repairing teeth because it is durable and can withstand years of chewing. For decades, dental gold was produced in Hartford by the J.M. Ney Company.
One of my favorite images in the dentistry section is of a dentist’s office in Thomaston, CT in 1909. The chair is facing the window to utilize the daylight, and despite there being plumbing in the room, there’s a spittoon strapped to the side of the chair.
And, of course, there are the Connecticut dental firsts! The co-founder of the first American dental college in 1840 was Horace Hayden of Windsor, CT and the first school for dental hygienists was started in Bridgeport by Dr. Alfred C. Fones in 1913. He painted cement on the teeth he had extracted from patients and had the students practice scraping it off. My dental hygienist told me that today they use nail polish to practice finer scraping.
While today at least 50% of the population is still nervous about visiting the dentist, it’s nice to see a visitor comment like this:
So visit This Won’t Hurt a Bit! A History of Pain Relief on view until September 28 and find a new appreciation for your dentist and dental history in Connecticut!
Andrea Rapacz is the Head of Interpretive Projects at the Connecticut Historical Society.