The History of Dentistry: Weird and Curious Facts You Didn't Know

In years past, a visit to the dentist could be a painful experience. As a result, people invented odd and ingenious methods to ease their troublesome dental issues. From noisy marching bands to hippopotamus ivory these unusual remedies are certainly curious.

The Far-Fetched History Behind Painless Parker and His Traveling Show

Edgar Randolph “Painless” Parker launched his teeth-pulling traveling show in the late 1800s when most people avoided going to the dentist due to pain.

Early in his career, Parker read an article about a local anesthetic — a diluted cocaine solution thought to reduce pain during tooth extractions. Parker asked a druggist to prepare the formula that they named "hydrocaine." Parker and the druggist tested the solution by injecting it into their gums. The hydrocaine solution worked!

Parker traveled the U.S. and Canada in the 19th and early 20th centuries holding shows on street corners. Wearing a top hat, a white lab coat, and accompanied by a band, Parker started his performance with a speech about the importance of dental hygiene.

Then he announced that he would pull an audience member's tooth for 50 cents each. He stated that if the person experienced pain, he would give them a $5 refund. Parker injected the cocaine solution into the volunteer's gums before extracting the tooth.

Supposedly, the band's ear-splitting music was designed to distract patients and drown out their painful moans! Parker also treated animals, including a hippopotamus.

Parker had his license to practice dentistry revoked on occasion, but only for a short period.

The Story Behind George Washington's Wooden Teeth

Some believe George Washington, the famous military officer, and Founding Father, had teeth made of wood. Some historians say he may have carved the teeth himself. But is this true?

Washington lost his first tooth when he was 24 years old. He endured dental problems throughout his life including toothaches, tooth decay and loose teeth. He is believed to have had dental problems due to heredity.

By the time Washington became president at the age of 57, he lost all of his teeth except one. A pair of his dentures were fashioned of gold wire, brass springs, hippopotamus ivory and human teeth.

Washington owned numerous pairs of dentures throughout his life. They were made from a variety of materials including zinc, copper, lead, ivory and cow's teeth.

To remedy his dental ailments, Washington enlisted the help of several notable dentists, including Jean-Pierre, a French dentist that treated the teeth of high-ranking British officers during the Revolutionary War.

Were George Washington's Teeth Made of Wood?

There's no evidence that Washington's dentures were made of wood. Some historians believe this myth was started to make the president more relatable to the general population. It's believed that some historians mistook the stained, grainy appearance of his ivory dentures for wood. If you look closely at Washington's portrait you may notice a lip bulge caused by dentures.

Washington mentioned his dental problems in correspondence over the years. His letters mention inflamed gums, aching teeth and ill-fitting dentures. Over the years, he sought to remedy his tooth problems himself by purchasing an assortment of dental devices, including teeth files, cleaners, medications and numerous pairs of dentures.

Very few of Washington's complete dentures have survived. The only remaining full-set in existence can be viewed at Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center at Mount Vernon, in Alexandria, VA.

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