Bone and Blood – Tooth and nail

Kim Le

Kim Le

Five years. This denotes a period of time in which the insides of my mouth had gone unplumbed by the nimble fingers of a dentist. I had fallen into the habit of not scheduling dentist appointments, due to a combination of laziness and terror. I am far from being alone in my dentophobia; apparently as much as 20 percent of the population has it. Hence the existence of dentist themed horror movies, which I still refuse to watch:

This clip is gloriously cheesy, and yet I still can’t look directly at the screen when it gets to the drilling bits.

Flooding is a quick, if traumatic, cure for phobias. Earlier this year, I made six dental appointments within the span of two months, patched up a few cavities and got fitted for a mouth guard that I must wear every night for the rest of my life. (Yes, even if I have “night companions,” said my hygienist). The process has evolved quite a bit since I was a traumatized child; I no longer try to disappear into the chair when the dentist approaches my face with a needle the length of my forearm. Still, the noise emitted by a sonic scaler is like a cheese grater to my nerves.

Truthfully, us teeth-havers have it pretty good compared to the olden days. During a recent episode of Sawbones, a podcast about antiquated medical practices, the hosts discuss what may be one of the most horrifying objects I have ever heard about: the “toothkey.” The word itself pretty much encapsulates what it is – a key-shaped implement inserted into a diseased tooth. With a twisting motion, the dentist “unlocks” the tooth from its previous resting place in the gums. As with brittle keys and old locks, sometimes the diseased tooth would shatter into fragments embedded into the victim’s – I mean, the patient’s gums. Oh, and by the way, these toothkeys were used before the advent of anesthesia.

Listening to this made me want to brush my teeth, and also reminded me that I had yet to cross one of Baltimore’s quirkiest landmarks off my list – the National Museum of Dentistry. Actually, I know exactly one person who has ever made the pilgrimage, a friend studying to be a hygienist. It is probably fair to call historical dentistry a niche interest. In the museum’s log book, the entry preceding mine was from over a month ago (also a dentist). Hours are limited; potential visitors should call ahead to make sure someone is there and awake enough to let you in. “Take your time,” said the drowsy, but friendly woman at the front desk. “I expect you’ll find the collection to be of great interest.”

And it certainly was. The museum is small but jam-packed with an eclectic assortment of toothsome artifacts. There is a Warhol pop-art display in quadruple of St. Apollonia, patron saint of dentistry, serenely holding a forceps. True to Catholic fashion, she earned her particular sainthood due to the gruesome manner in which she died – forcible tooth extraction. Around the corner is a display case with gilt-edged scrapers, used by Queen Victoria’s dentist. There’s a rare picture of the queen smiling while baring her teeth, looking uncannily like Anthony Hopkins from Silence of the Lambs.

On another wall, there is an x-ray of a rooster. While roosters do not traditionally feature teeth, a creative researcher had successfully implanted a partially-formed tooth into the rooster’s comb, in an attempt to demonstrate the possibility of human teeth transplants. In another corner, a replica of an ancient Mayan skull grins, its teeth embedded with precise circular jade stones in what is perhaps the earliest recorded instance of a grill. The jewels were inserted into the teeth by using a bow drill, which must have felt terribly pleasant, but I admit the teeth looked pretty stylish.

The collection goes on and on. There are hand-held drills and more advanced foot-pedal drills, kind of like a sewing machine for your mouth. There are suitcases filled with various implements wielded through the ages by “itinerant dentists,” which is now my new favorite job title. Upstairs, a tall beaker filled with a slight beige-tinged fluid represents the amount of saliva a human mouth generates in one day. A vivid 3-D display in the children’s section warns of the dangers of meth mouth; I gather the museum educators were going for early intervention. Also, for some reason, there is a narwhal horn.

The loose thread connecting this bizarre assortment of items is a legacy of human suffering, and attempts to alleviate it. Historically, tooth pain had been attributed to tiny worms that lived inside your teeth (see below in the gallery for a woefully vivid depiction). Eventually, people started making the connection between toothaches and the things people were introducing into their mouth ecosystems. Pierre Fauchard, considered “the father of dentistry,” advocated using urine as mouthwash to combat the effects of bad bacteria. For, as he put it, “what would one not do for the sake of health?” (And here I am in modern-day America, balking at the use of sonic scalers).

For most of history, though, tooth removal was the primary method of dealing with pain and disease. The museum features a grand display of toothkeys, of different shapes – some resemble actual housekeys, in a touch of preciousness. There are other variants: the Pelican, which involves a lever system to extract the tooth, and elevators, which are sharp pointed instruments intended to remove root tips. Oliver Wendell Holmes, in a commencement speech to graduating dentists at Harvard in 1872, had this to say about extraction implements:

There never was a claw on bird or beast
that was the cause of such anguish or apprehension
such howls or agony, as that diabolical instrument
looking like a vulture’s talon, but known by the name of the key.
It was a key indeed; it may have opened the door of Heaven
to the sufferer in due time; but while the bolt was turning
the victim thought he was in that other place where the man must be
who invented the instrument of torture.

Although these toothkeys are fascinating in their sheer menace, by far the most famous artifact at the museum, the “Mona Lisa” of dentistry, is a set of George Washington’s dentures. The museum educators would have you know that contrary to common lore, they were NOT in fact made of wood. Washington’s falsies were composed of a great many other materials, including ivory from a hippopotamus, and lead, but never wood. Our founding father suffered from constant toothaches, along with various other maladies, for much of what must have been an agonizing existence. The next time you view one of his many portraits, pay close attention to how the artist has depicted his face. You might catch a pained grimace here, or a slight swell to his cheeks in another.

Next to Washington’s non-wooden teeth are a set of vintage Japanese dentures that are actually carved of wood. They look nicer and less upsetting than their American contemporaries, composed of wire and teeth procured from other, poorer humans. Again, as with the toothkey, these transactions were primarily conducted before the advent of anaesthesia. Previous tactics of dealing with pain mostly involved herbs and booze. Or firing a pistol in the air, to drown out your patient’s screams. The other major alternative to procuring teeth, if no live donors proved suitable, was to gather them from corpses. While morbid, this method allowed for a higher probability of obtaining a complete set for your disgusting dentures.

After forty-five minutes spent staring into decrepit mouths, I started to feel woozy. I left the museum a little wiser, and slightly less hungry for the lunch I’d ordered. Though I do not understand their motivations whatsoever, I have come to respect dentists. A skilled dentist can have a tremendous impact on a client’s quality of life. I am particularly lucky to have access to decent insurance and the means to stop my mouth from degenerating into a demonic horrorshow; many do not have this luxury. I will definitely be sure to floss every single day. Maybe even twice a day. And I won’t skip my next appointment.

Kim Le is a writer and shiftless gadabout who hails from the distant wheat fields of Kansas. Obsessions include sustainability, yurts and extreme DIY. Also, she makes sculptures out of food, mostly potatoes. She never updates her blog at

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