Teeth are necessary evils, and their upkeep has preoccupied many people over the ages. Here are four interesting facts about dental practices people have employed in the ancient times.

1. Teething a baby

To prevent the death of a baby, cut its gums, according to French surgeon Ambriose Pare, in 1575, the originator of this ridiculous practice.

"When we diligently sought for the cause of his death, we could impute it to nothing else than the contumacious hardness of the gums...when we cut the gums with a knife we found all the teeth appearing...if it had been done when he lived, doubtless he would have been preserved,” said Pare.

Many babies died from this procedure, known as ‘teething’. In the year 1842 alone, 4.8% of all babies under one year of age died from 'teething', according to the British Registrar General's office. Secondary infections associated with cutting the gums claimed the lives of an additional 7.1% of toddlers aged between one and three years.

Cutting teeth was finally abandoned in the beginning of the 20th century.

2. There were no dentists, only barber-surgeons

Dentistry as we understand it today, was not a licensed profession until the end of the 19th century.

Before dentists existed barber-surgeons, who performed a wide variety of tasks, from cutting hair, gallstones and hangnails, giving enemas, to, of course, pulling teeth without anaesthetic.

Barber-surgeons usually advertised their services by displaying rotten extracted teeth in front of their shops.

3. Instruments for teeth extraction

Common tooth extraction methods included the use of strange instruments such as the ‘tooth key’.

First mentioned in Alexander Monro’s Medical Essays and Observations in 1742, it consisted of a claw, to be placed over the top of the decaying tooth, and a long metal rod, or bolster, attached to a metal loop, so that it resembled its namesake. The bolster was then placed against the root of the tooth.

The idea was that, when the ‘key’ was turned, the tooth would pop out of the socket. Unfortunately, what often happened was that the tooth would shatter, so that its pieces would have to be plucked out from the bleeding gum, one by one.

4. Anaesthetic for tooth extraction

In the past, there were not a lot that people could do to prevent tooth decay. Most who found themselves with a toothache ended up in the hands of dentists, who would extract it without anaesthetic. The fear of pain meant an unpopularity of dental services.

Enter one Edgar Randolph Parker, or “Painless Parker”, an American who first started his dental practice in Canada. When he found himself without customers for six weeks straight, he decided to offer ‘painless’ tooth extractions that cost 50 cents each, where he would inject patients with ‘hydrocaine’ – a solution of cocaine in water - before extractions. When they did not work, he offered his customers whiskey instead. MIMS

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