#MyrtleMondays: The Victorian Dentist

I spent last Friday morning at the dentist, having the same tooth worked on for the fifth time since November. (Fingers crossed it’s finally fixed!) I am blissfully blessed to have an excellent dentist, even by 21st century standards. Our modern dental care can trace its origins to the 19th century. Let’s have a look at how dentistry evolved in the Victorian era. Yes, you have to. It’s good for you.

This post continues our series on Victorian medicine and the fascinating inspiration behind Myrtle Hardcastle Mysteries #4, In Myrtle Peril.

Dr. Olga Lentz of Minneapolis works on a patient

The medical care of human teeth dates back to prehistory (yes: Neanderthal dentists.), but the modern comforts we’re familiar with took a bit longer to arrive, and dentistry as a profession evolved in fits and starts. But the history of modern medicine as a whole can thank the specialty of dentistry for one of its most important leaps forward.

Read More: The Victorian Hospital, Part I

1846, Boston dentist William Morton performs the first public demonstration of anaesthesia

Everyone knows how painful teeth problems and their associated dental work can be, but pioneering American dentist William T.G. Morton was determined to find a way to make his treatments easier on his patients (and himself!).

A 19th century dentist performs a tooth extraction on a conscious patient, while a colleague forcibly holds the man down.

The development of anaesthesia meant dental care could feel a little less dramatic for the patients and practitioners, and it gave a boost to the profession.

Meeting of the fledgling American Dental Association in 1864

Legislation overseeing the practice of dentistry in the United States began in the 1840s, and the American Dental Association was founded in 1864, setting professional standards for dentistry that continue to this day. Britain followed with laws in the 1870s and onward—but for much of the era, people would sometimes turn to amateur care from barbers and blacksmiths or take care of dental extractions at home.

Jessie Castle La Moreaux treats a patient at her modern, well-appointed practice in Michigan, 1897

At a time when women struggled to establish themselves in other branches of the medical profession, they were making great inroads in dentistry. The University of Michigan School of Dentistry has a great interactive exhibit featuring pioneering female dentists.

Of course, the best way to avoid traumatic dental procedures—then and now—-is to take good care of your teeth (you ARE flossing daily, right?). Products for healthy and beautiful teeth filled up an eager Victorian marketplace.

American soap company Colgate added dental products to their lineup in the 1870s

A period toothbrush design

This booklet offered advice for home dental care. You can browse the contents here.

But even the most diligent of people (cough) can find themselves in the dentist’s chair. By the late Victorian age, dentists knew how to appeal to new and reluctant patients.

This advertisement for a New York practice boasts low cost, painless, and modern procedures (and apparently satisfied patients…?)

And if everything goes well… Well, as usual, satirical magazine Punch said it best.

Moments when Life is Really Worth Living. (The Annual Visit to the Family Dentist). “Well, my dear Young Lady, I’ve looked very carefully, and there’s absolutely nothing for me to do to you this Year!”

Here’s wishing you a carefree dental year!



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