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A Brief History of Dentisty

July 11, 2011
JULY 11, 2011 8:33AM

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448px-Older_barber-dentist

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.

thichnhathanh

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.

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Comments

When I was a kid in New York City, I had to go to the Guggenheim Clinic, a dental school that all the military kids were sent to. The pain they inflicted on me stayed with me all my life. I kept great teeth until I couldn’t work anymore, and now they are so expensive, a normal person without insurance in just f**ked! Great Post and I want to read that book.
This is such a great post! You mixed humour and historical commentary incredibly well and your first para had me hooked.
I haven’t been to the dentist in twenty years or so. Haven’t had to, can’t afford to, and won’t unless something is hurting and it’s not. The experiences you outlined in your post are only some of the reasons why dentists and their hygienists can keep their cruel hands out of my mouth. Mine is clean and that is why my teeth are still nice for a woman who is almost sixty years old. I can’t imagine messing around in peoples’ gross and diseased mouths. Who would want to do that?
I’ve only read the title thus far and am cringing. I have an irrational fear of dentistry. Thanksfully, my dentist is extremely ind & patient…and knows I need the gas AND the little pill to get through procedures. Plus, I have to listen to the iPod to tune out all dentistry sounds. Now if I can muster up the courage I’ll go read your post.
Hahaha! It’s scary laying there with your mouth open and some potential crazy with sharp tools hovering over you. I like my dentist, not only is he gentle, but at my request he grills his assistants over their latest dating escapades and adds commentary about why the gents are inadequate. It’s a nice family atmosphere in his office and I don’t have to say a word.

I think most dentists are people who wanted to go to medical school and could not for whatever reason. The cocaine dentist office was a terrifying thing to contemplate. During a particularly horrifying experience, some asshole dentist pushed out several of my baby teeth with his thumb with no novocaine which hurt like hell. I have been tormented by this profession my entire life.

Enjoyable post to read and I totally agree with the monk. Nothing like a toothache to focus the mind.

Your Dr. Z reminded me of my Dr. F., although I lucked out as the “real” dentist we next went to did not find too much damage.

Clever and interesting mix of dentistry and your ride through time.

OMG.. I think your history of dentists is like mine only none of them were strung out on coke. I had all mine capped 17 years ago and after a dentist nearly killing me I swear I found good one.
Of course they were the same as yours and stuffed my mouth with cotton and then asked me why I dresses so strange.Silence..
They then figured I did not know why either..:)

HUGGGGGGGGGGGGGS to you and Mrs Muse.
Hope this gets an EP.:)

This title tickled me all morning like a piece of corn stuck between two bicuspids. I didn’t want to read it without taking something, which I did while reading it finally – my morning cereal. Now I am so glad I did. As Mr. Hahn (or is it Mr. Thich?) might say, having read this is a wonderful thing.
I really enjoyed this. Did you know out of all the professions, dentists have the highest rate of suicide? My family and I went to visit South Park in Fairplay, CO and I was amazed at the tools the dentists used!!!
I really liked the line. “Even a dentist and his patient viewed each other with suspicious eyes across the yawning chasm of the Generation Gap.”
R

“Did you know out of all the professions, dentists have the highest rate of suicide?”

Urban legend and probably untrue.

An unsourced comment from the ‘Straight Dope’

“A study of 24 states reported data on causes of death by occupation, for people ages 20 to 64, from 1984 to 1988, and came up with physicians, health aides, and “food batchmakers” as the three highest. Food batchmakers are at the top but only by a small (statistically insignificant) margin. Psychiatrists weren’t reported separately from other physicians. I’m not sure exactly what the numbers below mean, perhaps suicides per million of active population:

Food batchmakers (241)
Physicians (222) and health aides (excluding nursing) (221)
Lathe and turning machine operators (199)
Biological, life and medical scientists (188)
Social scientists and urban planners (171)
Dentists (165)
Lawyers and Judges (140)
Guards/sales occupations were tied at 139
Tool and die makers (126)
Police, public servants (118)”

http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/1588/what-occupation-has-t…

Given my long (often unpleasant) history with dentists, I confess I bypassed this blog several times this morning. Curiosity finally bested me, I came in, I shook my head slowly in empathy, I laughed. And ya know, anyone who can write something about the history of dentistry and still conjure up laughter – well, that’s some GOOD writing! Thanks!
My brother was a great dentist, but he wasn’t very gentle. I worked for him one summer way back when there were still dinosaurs and he paid me $50.00 a week. Needless to say I went back to school. Years later I managed dental offices for 15 years. I know of what you speak. There are so many juicy stories that come from dental offices. Some day I may have to share them.
I think dentistry is the scariest of all the body medicines — people are more afraid of tooth issues than any other regular-maintenance routines. (“Marathon Man” comes to mind. I had a dentist that once a year would ask me “Is it safe?” as he zeroed in with the drill. Funny man.) Rated.

This was much different than I expected. Really an entertaining ride. Had to stop in the middle just for a moment and contemplate a dental office awash in cocaine.

I am proud to say that I have read Thich Naht Hahn. I believe that I even know how to pronounce his name. Very cool stuff indeed.

My teeth are not hurting as much after reading this.

LM, I’m damn sorry I missed this at the time. I could have commiserated with you but good after the year I had with my first ever (botched) root canal!

RE: “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.” Geez, I remember in another decade when I was still a smoker the lecture that made me switch dentists. I’m a really good “flosser” now especially that we have NO dental plan. My last dental bill was about $1,ooo but I was in pain so I didn’t care how much. I was also darned happy that white-coated guy with his sharp tools about to drill into my skull was the straightest (as in “non-stoner”) looking person I’ve ever seen.

Hope you are feeling better. Looking forward to your next blog.

I am so glad to have read this and will think over the details as I go to have a tooth fixed later this week. Novacaine was certainly the biggest blessing…Sunflowers for you!
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