Doc Holliday was a dentist. He trained at the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery (Class of 1872), one of the first dental schools in America, so he wasn’t just an old-fashioned ‘tooth drawer’.
As I lay back in the dentist’s chair this week, with my mouth full of fingers and heavy metal, I thought about the history of dentistry. We’ve taken most of the pain out of dentistry – though not the discomfort. Nowadays we visit the dentist because bad teeth are smelly and unsightly, and a source of general infections or sudden, acute pain, but few of us will ever experience the horrors of chronic, unremitting toothache. Only the very poor, for whom dentistry is still too expensive, suffer from chronic toothache and the infections that spring from untreated tooth decay.
Joseph Jenkins was a poor man who worked as a day labourer in late 19th century Victoria, walking long distances from job to job until in old age he settled down in Maldon, where he worked clearing drains for the local council. Jenkins kept a diary that is now in the State Library of Victoria, parts of which were published as A Diary of a Welsh Swagman (1975).
Jenkins had bad teeth, because ‘I abused my teeth badly when I was young through cracking nuts which grew plentifully on the farm’. In May 1875, when he was 57, he wrote that ‘toothache has plagued me off and on for weeks; it disturbs my sleep.’ It recurred the following September, and from then on, it becomes a growing preoccupation in his diary. At 60 he listed his complaints as ‘toothache, rheumatism, sore eyes’ – sandy blight, caused by flies – ‘whitlow on my finger, and abscess in my armpit.’ The following year, he went into more detail:
Toothache is harassing me. I am thankful, however, that it is one-sided, and I am able to masticate my food on the other side. I realize that I would not be grateful for the freedom from pain on the one side, had I no pain on the other side…. My teeth are decaying fast.
Then, in December 1883, he writes that ‘I had a new set of teeth.’ False teeth had been around for a long time, but they didn’t work very well, and they don’t seem to have worked well for Jenkins. ‘An hour to cook a meal and eat it, is too short a time for an aged man whose grinders are not sharp-edged’, he wrote in 1886, complaining about the length of his lunch break.
Problems with his teeth, real or artificial, were beginning to limit what he could eat. Living alone, like many old people he had very little interest in food or cooking, and lived on a diet of soft, sugary foods, partly because they were cheap, and partly because chewing had become difficult.
For breakfast nowadays I have ‘pap’, which is boiled milk and flour, to which is added two tablespoonfuls of sugar and a pinch of cayenne pepper. For dinner I have cold tea with bread and cheese or meat, and mutton broth to which I add bread and meat, for supper.
To save on fuel, he cooked a pile of pancakes once a week and carried them to work to eat with cold tea. Aged 73, he wrote that:
For my dinner today I had toasted-bread and honey with cold tea. It suited my blunt and rotten grinders.
Dentistry remains beyond the reach of the very poor, although it looks as if the Australian federal government will soon fund some minimal dental care for those who can’t afford it. Let’s hope so, for nobody should have to suffer the misery of bad teeth.
Joseph Jenkins finally returned to his native Wales, where he died aged 80. His diaries languished unread for many years until his grandson discovered them, and published a selection of them in 1975.
Even without professional dentists, people in the developed world probably have better teeth these days. Dentists may be expensive, but brushing and flossing are cheap, and the food we eat these days contains less grit and gravel, even if it is bad for our waistlines. Our nuts come ready shelled, too.