1. Toothpaste alternativesToothpaste, as we understand, did not exist until the late 19th century, and our forefathers used all sorts of strange alternatives. In ancient Rome, people used urine to gargle and brush their teeth. In fact, urine from Portugal, specifically, was thought to be the strongest and thus, most desirable. In Egypt, their toothpaste of choice was made out of cleansing wine vinegar and abrasive pumice stone.
In the Renaissance and Middle Ages, ‘aqua fortis’ or nitric acid, was used after filing the teeth to make them shiny. The corrosive properties of the acid meant that the enamel quickly decayed. By the Elizabethan era, they had graduated to rubbing their teeth with powdered sage, and gargling with a mixture of wine, alum and vinegar.
The Chinese used horse and hog hair bristles implanted in ox bone or ivory. Muslims, on the other hand, chewed sticks made from wood of the Salvadora persica, colloquially called the "toothbrush tree." Despite the strangeness of the practice, there is some scientific evidence to back the process – these sticks consisted of sodium bicarbonate and tannic acid, which was antibacterial.
2. A traveling dental circusIn 1913, Edgar Randolph Parker, or “Painless Parker”, an American dental practitioner, teamed up with a former circus employee to create a traveling dental circus in New York. At the show, Parker would call up a pre-planted person out of the audience and pretend to pull out a molar.
He would produce an already-extracted tooth as ‘evidence’ of the ‘painless extraction’ to the audience. Finally, as performers like a brass band, contortionists and dancing women did their jobs, real patients would come up for their procedures.
As he performed his extractions, Parker would signal to the band to play louder by tapping his foot. This effectively drowned out any pained screams the patient would make, and everyone (but the patient) enjoyed his services and assumed that the treatment did not hurt. He would move around, leaving behind a trail of infuriated, hurting patients.
3. Real tooth implantsTooth extractions leave gaps that are not very aesthetically appealing. To solve that issue in the 18th century, dentists began experimenting with ‘live’ and ‘dead’ implants, with the former being more costly – the recipient would have the rotten tooth removed in front of a selected group of potential donors, who would have their own teeth extracted until one ‘deemed acceptable in appearance’ was found. Then, the chosen tooth would be inserted into the empty gum socket, and fixed using silver wire or silk ligatures.
‘Dead’ implants, from dead people, were cheaper. Unfortunately, this opened the risk for transmission of diseases like syphilis and tuberculosis from dead infected donors.
4. Selling teethHaving ‘dead’ implants were such a common practice during the 18th century that a professor of anatomy at Trinity College remarked, “Very many of the upper ranks carry in their mouths teeth which have been buried in the hospital fields”.
During the 19th century, a good set of teeth could fetch as much as 5 guineas (£5.25 GBP, or $9.32 SGD).
Said one resurrectionist, “It is the constant practice to take the teeth out first … because if the body be lost, the teeth are saved.” MIMS
New field of palaeopathography digs up treasures of medical knowledge
A closer look at the evolution of medicine across the centuries
6 horrifying and weird medieval medical practices