‘Worems in the teeth’: Toothache, dentistry and remedies in the early modern period.

According to an article on the BBC Website today, dentists are now beginning to think that drill-free dentistry may soon be possible. Emerging technology will use electricity to force minerals into enamel and encourage the tooth to repair itself. Eventually teeth may even be able to regrow. For the thousands of people with a genuine fear of visiting the dentist, this would be a welcome development.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-27866399

The poor quality of people’s teeth in the past has long been acknowledged. In the seventeenth century, mouths full of blackened, rotting stumps would not be uncommon. As sugar became more common in the eighteenth century, dental decay became even more problematic, especially amongst the well to do. There is a good reason why people in portraiture do not often display a toothy grin; in many cases their teeth would have looked like a row of condemned houses! Here’s Jean-Etienne Liotard’s engagingly honest self-portrait!

Jean Etienne Liotard self portrait

Tooth care was rudimentary and a range of medical interventions existed to try and soothe smarting teeth. In the seventeenth century, it was widely believed that toothache was the result of worms in the teeth. In fact, a condition called ‘teeth’ was a recognised medical affliction and was regularly quoted as a cause of death in the Bills of Mortality. Sometimes they were as high as the fifth or sixth highest cause of death!

As with many aspects of early modern medicine, prevention was better than cure, and a range of techniques were used to keep teeth clean. One method to whiten teeth was to make a mixture of vinegar, honey and salt, add it to a cloth and rub vigorously…but not enough to make the gums bleed. For daily maintenance things like rubbing the teeth with tree bark or chewing herbs such as parsley offered ways to get problematic bits out of the teeth, or to sweeten the breath. The toothbrush did not appear until the end of the eighteenth century in Britain, being an imported fad from France. People were thus forced to use other means.

Once toothache had taken hold, a large body of remedies existed to try and relieve the pain. The popular author Gervase Markham recommended taking daisy roots, stamping them in a cloth before adding salt and liquid, putting this into a quill and ‘snuff it up into your nose’.

Remedies for toothache seem to have attracted some fairly dangerous substances. Mrs Corlyon, author of a domestic remedy collection dating from 1606 advocated boiling sliced henbane roots in vinegar, then heating the roots from underneath to cook away most of the moisture, before holding one of the slices between the teeth until the remaining liquid dripped onto it. Henbane, also known as ‘Stinking Nightshade’ is poisonous and can cause hallucination and some severe psychoactive effects!.

tooth drawer

Another remedy, this time from the commonplace book of a Welsh gentleman, Phillip Howell of Brecon, c. 1633, appears even more risky. His remedy involved taking 3 drams of mercury, grinding it on a stone and putting it into a glass bottle. The patient then needed to drop some of the mercury ‘granules’ into the afflicted teeth 3 times a day over two or three days ‘and it will kill the worm and the tooth ache and never troble you ageine’. The patient should take care, cautioned Howell, not to swallow any of it, but spit it out. An early mercury filling…but potentially offering bigger problems than the toothache.

As is also common, remedies did not necessarily have to be applied to the body part afflicted. One recipe for toothache involved putting some ‘Burgamy pitch’ onto leather, sprinkling some nutmeg over it and then applying it to the soles of the feet.

If you had loose teeth and wanted them to stay in your mouth, then Markham suggested first letting some blood through the gums, before taking hartshorn or ivory and red pimpernel (a type of the herb saxifrage), bruising them together in a linen cloth and then laying the cloth to the teeth, promising that this would ‘fasten the teeth’. He neglected the rather vital instruction of how long the patient should do this for however!

Removing teeth was obviously problematic…and painful. Recognising this, some medical writers turned to medical preparations to loosen teeth without the need to forcibly pull them. ‘To Draw Teeth Without Iron: Take some of the green of the elder tree, or the apples of oak trees and with either of these rub the teeth and gums and it will loosen them so as you may take them out’.

If the worst came to the worst though, a range of practitioners were ready, willing and able to pull the offending tooth out. Whist there were no specific dentists, specialist tooth-drawers were often on hand to do the job. Some advertised their services, emphasising their skill in removing teeth without pain. In the 1760s, R. Maggerrus advertised his services in the Public Advertiser as an ‘Operator for the Teeth’ having an ‘infallible method’ and ‘cureing the poor gratis’.

But there were other less obvious candidates. Blacksmiths often ran a lucrative sideline in tooth-removal; they had the upper body strength to pull the offending tooth out, together with the metal instruments to deal with any stubborn ones. Travelling mountebanks criss-crossed the country offering to cure symptoms. Robert Bulkley, a 17th-century Anglesey diarist, noted that he had paid one such figure a penny to cure his toothache. Two days later the mountebank was long gone, but Bulkeley still had his toothache.

Tooth extractor

Perhaps the day of the ‘regrowing tooth’ is not far away and, for many, this will be a relief. Next time you grin for the camera, though, spare a thought for our ancestors…and offer up a silent prayer that you live in an age of relatively pain-free dentistry!

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