A Brief History of Dentisty
A Brief History of Dentistry
Disclosure: I just finished that indispensable writer’s guide, Killer Headlines That Will Grab Readers’ Eyeballs (and Squeeze Until The Juice Rolls Down Their Faces) by Ellis Dee Trypp. So while “A Brief History” is mine the credit all goes to the redoubtable Mr. Trypp (no relation to Linda Trypp.)
Additional disclosure: I am not about to detail George Washington’s trials with wooden teeth (OK, a little later), or Egyptian molar grinding or the discovery of laughing gas in the mountains of inner Moldavia which made her the world power she still is today. I’m sure you, educated reader, know all that already. No, like most of what I write, this is personal history. With a rocking title like that, why bore you with tales of toothaches, braces, extractions, root canals or the fortune they cost? This is no story of cold teeth, but a warm tale of human relations, those between me the many dentists I have known.
We begin in the misty 50s with Dr. Zimmerman. When I later discovered that my hero Bob Dylan, prophet of my generation no matter what he says, was nee Zimmerman, I reached to my jaw with dismay and nearly fell out of my chair.
Dr. Z started out as every kid’s dream dentist. I’d walk in and sit in the chair. “Anything hurt?” “Nope.” “Open up.” Quick look in, then, “Your teeth are perfect! No cavities.” He’d hand me a Tootsie Roll and I’d rush from downtown into my kitchen, still chewing as I told mom, “No cavities!” This went on for a few years.
My friends all went to Dr. Z too. Our teeth all started hurting around the same time. We switched to Dr. A. He was not jovial like Dr. Z, but looked at me sternly as he said, “Open up.” “No, open up, WIDE!” He poked around in there for a long time. He took x-rays. “Dr. Z never took x-rays.” “Yes. Well Dr. Z…” A rare smile flashed on Dr. A’s serious face as he envisioned Dr. Z suffering the dental equivalent of tarring and feathering. When he was done examining me, he announced with satisfaction, “You have 14 cavities.”
Over many visits Dr. A fixed them all, and did a good job. But he had an annoying habit some readers may recognize. The moment he had my mouth packed solid with cotton so I could barely breathe, he became talkative. He’d start in with the questions, “How’s school?” “Um-um-grm.” “I didn’t catch that.” “Unk grgle um!”
I happened to go to college in my humble hometown of Middletown, CT. Dr. A was a ten minute walk downtown, so I still saw him while I was a Freshman. Spring of 1969 was a fraught time. The culture wars which still simmer today were seeing their first inglorious battles. Even a dentist and his patient viewed each other with suspicious eyes across the yawning chasm of the Generation Gap.
When I went down to get some cavities filled that spring my hair was well on its way down to my ass. I was too generally stoned to have more than a vague notion of the racial strife on campus. Much later I would know that Black radicals from Wesleyan had joined up with the Black Panthers down in New Haven. Those guys did not mess around. When they discovered a member they thought was an FBI informant, they killed him. But I knew none of this at the time.
I sat in the chair, mouth per usual cottoned up. “I had to sit in on the autopsy of that poor boy down in New Haven. It’s awful what they did to him. Theytortured him. They…” He described terrible things. “Hum brm um,” which was to say – What boy in New Haven? But he glared down at my long hair in those terrible bright lights, the implication clear – I was somehow complicit in this terrible crime.
So it is in times of war – our enemies appear all the same, each guilty of the worst of their crimes. Just as I assumed every straight person was hopelessly intolerant, mercenary and uptight, Dr. A assumed I was in cahoots with the Panthers, even though by then they wouldn’t give Whites like me the time of day. It was awful not being able to explain any of this to him as I sat there. I stopped seeing Dr. A after that and my teeth rotted away. Eventually, as with Dr. Z., pain got me back in someone’s chair.
A friend recommended his dentist. The guy seemed very energized, much too happy to be a dentist. He said, “You have TMJ!” He made a mold for some device that I would wear that would cure the TMJ, stuffing my mouth with some kind of goo. I was afraid I was going to choke to death. The whole business cost thousands of dollars. It didn’t help my pain. Meanwhile, his assistant was also unnaturally energized. She was not so happy. She was in a poisonous mood. She slashed at my gums, until they bled like Dracula’s after a good night, cursing my flossing habits like I was some kind of degenerate. “You come back with gums like this, I’m not going to work on you anymore!” A promise, not a threat. Terrified, I got another dentist. I didn’t have TMJ. That scene later made sense when I heard the whole office was up to their eyeballs in cocaine.
Even as late as the 90s when hippies were as quaint a memory as Model T Fords, dentists were still getting all up in my countercultural shit. A sour dude in Connecticut drilled into a wisdom tooth. Most dentists give you the Novocain and say nicely, “Now tell me if anything hurts.” As he got to work I managed an “Ow” through all that cotton.
The guy said, “I gave you a lot of Novacain. Sure you didn’t used to be a junkie? They have a high tolerance for pain.” I once again could not defend myself for all that cotton. Now I will. Yes, I took a few drugs back in the day. But I have never, ever been a junkie. After I stopped seeing him I spied him across the room while in physical therapy for my bad shoulder. I hid from him behind my trainer as I eavesdropped. “I don’t know what’s with my neck. It’s just killing me.” I thought, uncharitably, Maybe it wouldn’t hurt so bad if you spent less time with your head up your ass…
Despite misgivings about socializing with one’s dentist, I agreed to dinner with one. He asked me to bring a CD of my music so he could hear it. Actually he wanted to show off his humongous $ 20,000 stereo system. Dentists always seem to have them. I’ve made my living from music for all my life and use an $80 boombox. My CD got about 3 songs in, too quiet for us to either appreciate his great system or hear the music over our conversation. He said, “Let me put on something better.” He played Lori McKenna, whom I had nothing against. Three hours and several bottles of wine later I did. And still do.
So I’ve seen some weird dentists. And I confess I’ve always looked down my nose on them as unhip. Who in their right mind, even for the biggest ass stereo in the world, would actually choose to spend their days staring in an endless progression of mouths filled with rotten teeth?
I promised the personal, but will end with a little generalization. Recently, as I think of the past, I’ve changed my tune about dentists. While the father of our country was glad to have any teeth, even wooden ones, I don’t imagine he was all “These wooden teeth are awesome, they feel great!” I realize that by my age back then you either had lost all your teeth and subsisted on gruel and porridge, or you drank a fifth of whisky a day to numb a mouth in constant pain.
Mrs. Muse once heard the Vietnamese monk Thich Naht Hahn speak on the subject of gratitude. He asked his audience, “Do any of you have a toothache?” No one raised a hand. He said, “When we have a toothache we know that not having a toothache is a wonderful thing…” It is.
I thank dentists everywhere, (the good ones that is.) They are the unsung heroes of our time.