What Were Frontier Dentists Able to Do Medically Besides Pull Teeth and Make Primitive Dentures?

frontier dentists primitive ask the marshall true west magazine

What were frontier dentists able to do medically besides pull teeth and make primitive dentures?

Frank Fantozzi
San Jose, California

“Agonizing toothache, horrifying extractions and barbaric tools have cast a large shadow over our dental past,” stated Joanna Bourke, professor of history at Birkbeck, University of London. No truer words were ever spoken.

Trained dentists in the Old West sometimes had nitrous oxide to numb the pain, but often, they gave patients a shot of whiskey. Extraction was almost the only treatment available for toothaches until the middle of the 19th century. To pull out the teeth, frontier dentists usually relied on pliers or a similar instrument that used the patient’s jaw for leverage. That method sometimes led to a dislocated jaw.

This dental school graduation photograph shows John Henry “Doc” Holliday, age 20, in 1872, the year after the invention of the treadle drill.

In 1871, American dentist James Beall Morrison invented the treadle drill. Operated by a foot pedal that spun a leather belt via a cast iron wheel to provide power, the drill, although slow, sometimes enabled dentists to drill away the decay, eliminating the need for a painful extraction.

Pioneers did use toothbrushes—or their equivalents—but these often couldn’t overcome the mass consumption of processed sugar, alcohol and tobacco.

During the early 20th century, dentistry was still so expensive that some people chose to have all their teeth pulled to spare themselves a lifetime of pain. This procedure was considered the perfect gift for a 21st birthday or a newly married bride.

Marshall Trimble is Arizona’s official historian and vice president of the Wild West History Association. His latest book is Arizona Outlaws and Lawmen; The History Press, 2015. If you have a question, write: Ask the Marshall, P.O. Box 8008, Cave Creek, AZ 85327 or email him at marshall.trimble@scottsdalecc.edu.

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Marshall Trimble

Marshall Trimble is Arizona’s official historian and the Wild West History Association’s vice president. His latest book is 2018’s Arizona Oddities: A Land of Anomalies and Tamales. Send your question, with your city/state of residence, to marshall.trimble@scottsdalecc.edu or Ask the Marshall, P.O. Box 8008, Cave Creek, AZ 85327.