20th-Century Teeth: Dentistry at the Turn of the Century

By Johanna Goldberg, Information Services Librarian

This is part of an intermittent series of blogs featuring advertisements from medical journals. You can find the entire series here.

“How did you learn to be a dentist? Did you go to a college?”

“I went along with a fellow who came to the mine once. My mother sent me. We used to go from one camp to another. I sharpened his excavators for him, and put up his notices in the towns–stuck them up in the post-offices and on the doors of the Odd Fellows’ halls. He had a wagon.”

“But didn’t you never go to a college?”

“Huh? What? College? No, I never went. I learned from the fellow.”

Trina rolled down her sleeves. She was a little paler than usual. She fastened the buttons into the cuffs and said:

“But do you know you can’t practise unless you’re graduated from a college? You haven’t the right to call yourself, ‘doctor.'”1

In Frank Norris’ 1899 novel McTeague: A Story of San Francisco—better known for its depiction of greed than the professionalization of dentistry—the title character loses his 12-year-old dental practice after California requires practitioners to hold a degree in the field. The timing couldn’t be worse for McTeague: he’d only just fulfilled a long-held dream, obtaining and hanging an enormous golden tooth outside his dental parlor.

McTeague’s fictionalized struggle was based in reality: until the mid to late 1800s, dentistry in the United States was not a regulated profession. Alabama became the first state to regulate dentists in 1841, and other states followed suit through the end of the century.2 In 1885, California passed a law requiring practicing dentists to register with a board, which could call up registrants for examination. Diplomas from a licensed dentistry school—the University of California College of Dentistry opened in San Francisco in 1882—also qualified registered dentists to practice. In 1901, a new law made practicing dentistry in California even more restrictive, part of a nationwide move to tighter regulation.3,4 In the novel as it would have been in real life, McTeague’s practice was toast.

Advertisements in dental journals from the era depict the trend toward professionalization, along with other technological advances. In 1840, the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery opened its doors as the first dental school in the world; by 1895, it had some local competition, including the Dental Department of the Baltimore Medical College.4 This school advertised heavily in journals like the American Journal of Dental Science.

Ad for the Dental Department of the Baltimore Medical College in the American Journal of Dental Science, vol. 33, no. 10, February 1900.

Ad for the Dental Department of the Baltimore Medical College in the American Journal of Dental Science, vol. 33, no. 10, February 1900.

Intriguingly, not only dental schools advertised in dentistry journals: The February 1901 volume of Dental Hints includes an ad encouraging dentists to take up a correspondence course in optometry, “on account of the intimate relationship between the eye and the teeth.” Huh?

Advertisement for the Philadelphia Optical College in Dental Hints, vol. 3, no. 2, February 1901.

Advertisement for the Philadelphia Optical College in Dental Hints, vol. 3, no. 2, February 1901.

Dental journal advertisements also reflect anesthetic advances. William Morton, a dentist, performed the first public demonstration of ether as a surgical anesthetic in 1846.2 A similar demonstration of nitrous oxide in 1845 did not go so well: dentist Horace Wells extracted a tooth before administering the proper dosage, and the patient cried out in pain. The drug was tabled for about 20 years; by 1869, it was commonly used either on its own or in conjunction with ether for dental procedures.2,5 Dental surgeries held less risk than other medical procedures, as they were commonly performed either in the patient’s or dentist’s home, locations less teeming with deadly microbes than operating theaters. After advances in antiseptic surgery by people like Joseph Lister, dental surgery became even safer—and Dr. Joseph Lawrence named an antiseptic mouthwash in his honor.5,6

Codman & Shurtleff's Inhaler for Gas or Ether advertisement in Dental and Oral Science Magazine, vol. 1, no. 2, May 1878.

Codman & Shurtleff’s Inhaler for Gas or Ether advertisement in Dental and Oral Science Magazine, vol. 1, no. 2, May 1878.

Listerine advertisement in the American Journal of Dental Science, vol. 33, no. 10, February 1900.

Listerine advertisement in the American Journal of Dental Science, vol. 33, no. 10, February 1900.

Local anesthetics also entered the market around the turn of the century. Some, like Mylocal, contained cocaine—though in the case of Mylocal, that cocaine was to be added by the practitioner prior to use. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the amount of cocaine used in local anesthetics was often poorly controlled, with sometimes dire results.5 Another local anesthetic, Eureka, proudly advertised that it “[avoids] that most dangerous drug that is known to the profession as COCAINE.” A third, Wilson’s Local Anaesthetic, notes that it is “non-secret and positively guaranteed.” Unfortunately, its ads don’t state what these non-secret ingredients are.

Advertisement for Mylocal anaesthetic in the American Journal of Dental Science, vol. 39, no. 1, January 1908.

Advertisement for Mylocal anaesthetic in the American Journal of Dental Science, vol. 39, no. 1, January 1908.

Advertisement for Eureka Local Anaesthetic in Dental Hints, vol. 3, no. 2, February 1901.

Advertisement for Eureka Local Anaesthetic in Dental Hints, vol. 3, no. 2, February 1901.

Advertisement for Wilson's Local Anesthetic in Dental Clippings, vol. 3, no. 6, April 1901.

Advertisement for Wilson’s Local Anesthetic in Dental Clippings, vol. 3, no. 6, April 1901.

Other turn-of-the-century advances include the development of tube toothpaste in the 1880s (previously, toothpaste had only been available in powdered form); awareness of microbial causes of tooth decay, leading to the promotion of flossing and brushing in the 1890s; and the use of gold foil as a cavity filling in the 1850s.2 The ads below reflect these advances and others, and were selected to show the relatively pain-free side of dentistry.

R. S. Williams Toothbrushes advertisement in Dental and Oral Science Magazine, vol. 1, no. 2, May 1878

R. S. Williams Toothbrushes advertisement in Dental and Oral Science Magazine, vol. 1, no. 2, May 1878.

Ney's Gold Plates advertisement in the American Journal of Dental Science, vol. 33, no. 1, May 1899.

Ney’s Gold Plates advertisement in the American Journal of Dental Science, vol. 33, no. 1, May 1899.

Dental Floss Silk advertisement in advertisements in the American Journal of Dental Science, vol. 33, no. 10, February 1900.

Dental Floss Silk advertisement in advertisements in the American Journal of Dental Science, vol. 33, no. 10, February 1900.

McConnell Dental Chair advertisement in Dental Hints, vol. 3, no. 4, April 1901.

McConnell Dental Chair advertisement in Dental Hints, vol. 3, no. 4, April 1901.

Standard Dental Manufacturing Co. advertisement in Dental Hints, vol. 3, no. 5, May 1901.

Standard Dental Manufacturing Co. advertisement in Dental Hints, vol. 3, no. 5, May 1901.

Dentacura toothpaste advertisement in Dental Hints, vol. 3, no. 11, November 1901.

Dentacura toothpaste advertisement in Dental Hints, vol. 3, no. 11, November 1901.

Munson's Standard Teeth advertisement in Dental Hints, vol. 3, no. 12, December 1901.

Munson’s Standard Teeth advertisement in Dental Hints, vol. 3, no. 12, December 1901.

Prophylactic Toothbrush advertisement in Dental Summary, vol. 22, no. 7, July 1902.

Prophylactic Toothbrush advertisement in Dental Summary, vol. 22, no. 7, July 1902.

Antikamnia and Odontoline advertisements in advertisements in the American Journal of Dental Science, vol. 39, no. 4, April 1908.

Antikamnia and Odontoline advertisements in advertisements in the American Journal of Dental Science, vol. 39, no. 4, April 1908.

Baker Coat Co. and Keeton Gold advertisements in the American Journal of Dental Science, vol. 39, no. 4, April 1908.

Baker Coat Co. and Keeton Gold advertisements in the American Journal of Dental Science, vol. 39, no. 4, April 1908.

Bowl Spittoon advertisement in the American Journal of Dental Science, vol. 39, no. 4, April 1908.

Bowl Spittoon advertisement in the American Journal of Dental Science, vol. 39, no. 4, April 1908.

References

1. Norris F. McTeague.; 1899. Available at: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/165/165-h/165-h.htm. Accessed May 9, 2016.

2. History of Dentistry Timeline. Available at: http://www.ada.org/en/about-the-ada/ada-history-and-presidents-of-the-ada/ada-history-of-dentistry-timeline. Accessed May 9, 2016.

3. Newkirk G. California. In: Koch CRE, ed. History of dental surgery: Dental laws and legislation, dental societies and dental jurisprudence, Vol. III. Fort Wayne, Ind.: National art publishing Company; 1910:755–756. Available at: https://books.google.com/books?id=9iE-AQAAMAAJ&pgis=1. Accessed May 9, 2016.

4. Schulein TM. A chronology of dental education in the United States. J Hist Dent. 2004;52(3):97–108.

5. Enever G. History of dental anaesthesia. In: Shaw I, Kumar C, Dodds C, eds. Oxford Textbook of Anaesthesia for Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery. Oxford: Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/med/9780199564217.001.0001.

6. From Surgery Antiseptic to Modern Mouthwash | LISTERINE®. Available at: http://www.listerine.com/about. Accessed May 10, 2016.

The Secret Surgeries of Grover Cleveland

By Arlene Shaner, Acting Curator and Reference Librarian for Historical Collections

With the celebration of Presidents’ Day in February, it’s an apt time to look at what related materials can be found in our special collections. Among our dental artifacts are two casts of Grover Cleveland’s upper jaw, received in 1929 from Mrs. Kasson Gibson, the widow of Grover Cleveland’s long-time dentist. The casts came with a typescript copy of a letter from Cleveland to her husband dated October 14, 1893 reporting on his successful use of a hard rubber prosthesis Dr. Gibson had sent him the day before.

An 1893 letter from President Cleveland to his dentist, Dr. K.C. Gibson.

An 1893 letter from President Cleveland to his dentist, Dr. K.C. Gibson. Click to enlarge.

Only five months earlier, on July 1, Cleveland boarded the yacht Oneida and sailed out into the Long Island Sound with a group of physicians including Joseph D. Bryant, William W. Keen, R. M. O’Reilly, and Ferdinand Hasbrouck. In mid-June, O’Reilly discovered a suspicious rough patch on Cleveland’s upper palate and suggested that it should be removed. Dr. Bryant, Cleveland’s personal physician, performed the surgery on the yacht with the help of several assistants. By July 5, Cleveland was recuperating at his summer home, Grey Gables, until Bryant performed a second brief surgery, again on the yacht, on July 17.

The first cast of Cleveland’s jaw, made in 1893, shows the extent of the damage to his upper palate and jaw while the second cast demonstrates how much healing and regeneration of tissue took place over the course of the next several years. Bryant operated through Cleveland’s mouth in order to minimize any external signs of injury, especially since Cleveland and his physicians were determined to keep the severity of his illness as quiet as possible. Gibson was not present at the surgery, but treated Cleveland as he recovered and took care of his other dental needs.

The 1893 (left) and 1897 (right) casts of President Cleveland's top teeth.

The 1893 (left) and 1897 (right) casts of President Cleveland’s top jaw. Click to enlarge.

Cleveland’s physicians and friends released no information about the surgery to the public, telling visiting reporters at first that the President was suffering from rheumatism and then that he had only a mild dental ailment. When The Press, a Philadelphia newspaper, published a much fuller account of the operation later in the summer, it stunned the public. The country was in the middle of an economic depression and Congress held a special session on August 7 to vote on the repeal of the Sherman Act, as arguments between the advocates and opponents of free silver exacerbated the country’s economic problems in 1893. The suggestion that the President might be seriously ill could have created a serious panic.

As a manuscript letter to Gibson from 1896 in the NYAM collections shows, Cleveland was not without a sense of humor regarding his continuing dental maladies and their relationship to his political sympathies. “This morning about an hour ago there came out of a tooth on my right under jaw next to the dead tooth you fixed up a piece of gold the size of a small pin,” Cleveland wrote to Gibson on June 9, 1896. “This shows how completely I have been on the gold standard. I’ve got the gold in my possession. What shall I do with it?”

An 1896 letter from President Cleveland to his dentist, Dr. K.C. Gibson.

An 1896 letter from President Cleveland to his dentist, Dr. K.C. Gibson. Click to enlarge.

Joseph Bryant intended to publish an account of the Cleveland surgeries himself, but never completed one. After he died in 1914, Dr.William Keen, who assisted at both surgeries, wrote and published his own first-hand account of the operations, which can be read here.