Penrith Remembers - 7

8th August, 2014

Penrith Remembers 7:

The state of our teeth
Kelly’s Directory for Penrith 1914 lists 19 confectioners and six ‘artificial teethmakers’ in the town. Or rather five and a bit, as one of them only opened on Tuesdays. The connection between sugar and tooth decay wasn’t discovered till later. So the teethmakers were kept busy – but only for those who could afford £3 for a set of dentures, the equivalent of around £240 today. For everyone else, when teeth were rotten, they were pulled out and not replaced.

Before the Dentist Act 1921, anyone could, in theory, practice dentistry. Many were apprenticed by watching experienced hands, whether they were doctors, barbers or charlatans. Arthur Golding Sharp, who practised as a dentist and teethmaker in Middlegate (now StyleLine hairdressers) warned: “We wish to warn the public against door-to-door dentists, who charge exorbitant prices for low-class work. Patronise a reliable man and get satisfaction at a reasonable figure.”

In World War 1, records for the British Expeditionary Forces (BEF) in show that a low priority had been placed on dental care for the troops – vets and blacksmiths were more highly regarded in the field of war. When General Haig had toothache he had to be attended by a French surgeon.

A year later there were 11 dental surgeons in BEF and by 1917 mobile dental units had been established. You can read more about this on the Western Front Association website. WW1 saw the growth in knowledge in maxillofacial surgery in order to correct gross facial injuries. There was also a huge increase in knowledge about anaesthesia.

In those days a tiny dose of cocaine was sufficient local anaesthetic for an extraction. General anaesthesia was much more risky, with one person in 2,500 dying from chloroform anaesthesia and 1 in 15,000 dying from direct administration of ether.

Infection was rife – instruments and needles were thrown into simple water boilers creating a warm 'soup'. Sir Alexander Fleming did not describe penicillin till 1928 so there were no antibiotics to control infection. Furniture was wooden and softly upholstered so not at all cleanable, and indoor lighting was poor.

Restorative techniques were poorly developed. There were no high speed drills – so all drilling, such as was available, would have been with a slow drill with gross vibration, overheating of the tooth and often pulpal damage. This is why many would opt for extraction, being the lesser of the two and at least with a certain outcome!
Artificial teeth (prosthetics) would have been made up as sets of dentures in vulcanite (toughened rubber – see photo), porcelain and aluminium.

After the war, soldiers benefited from the formation of the Army Dental Corps in early 1921. Before that, they would be at the hands of surgeons with some dental experience (most likely for extractions only).

We can all smile now – dentistry has come a long way in a hundred years.
Ali Turnbull


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