Herman Takes the Bite

By Maggie George

It was all Herman’s fault really. I’d been enjoying a lovely slice of my latest Herman-the-German Friendship cake which I had flavoured this time with almonds when suddenly, I bit down hard and crack, a molar broke. Actually to be more precise a filling in the molar broke because, in common with a fair few people of my age, I have a generous smattering of amalgam in amongst my not-so-pearly-whites. The pain was excruciating, it felt as if red-hot pokers were being inserted into my jawbone. Tears of self-pity filled my eyes as I reached for the phone to ring the dental surgery.

I loathe dentists. Not that mine is unpleasant you understand but rather, I would prefer never to have to visit one again. Although this one did manage to sort out the problem without too much difficulty and I was vastly relieved by the time I left his surgery (as indeed was my bank balance having stumped up for the cost of the treatment involved).

My grandmother used to say that teeth were a nuisance coming through, a nuisance when you got them and a nuisance when you lost them. Indeed, what parent can’t say that they haven’t had at least a few sleepless nights when their babies were teething? My children seemed to have perpetually snotty noses during their teething periods. Many a time I had thought wistfully of my pre-motherhood days, when I had been able to go out dressed in smart outfits without a thin sheen of baby-slime across my shoulders or down my blouse front?

For those of us not forced to endure them, false teeth have always had a bit of the parlour-joke quality about them. One of the best laughs I had as a youngster (to my eternal shame), was when my poor mother sneezed violently in the garden while pegging out the washing and her front false teeth went flying down the garden path. She was of course less than amused as my brother and I doubled over in mirth. In fairness to my brother, he did retrieve them from amongst her treasured delphiniums, although their magnificent spires of deepest blue flowers were never quite the same that summer after he’d stomped amongst their tall stems in his size tens, a constant reminder of her embarrassment.

Thankfully we’ve come a long way over the years and dentistry in the twenty-first century is a far cry from the days when it was believed that cavities were caused by tooth worms. Although the Ancient Egyptians held this believe, nonetheless the idea that tooth worms were at fault endured right up until the seventeenth century.


Right from an early age, we are taught that brushing our teeth will keep the tooth-fairy away but toothpastes in various forms have been used for hundreds of years. The Romans (well it would be, wouldn’t it!), were known to use mouth washes made from such things as pumice and eggs shells, although toothbrushes seem to have been unknown. The Romans also considered that gargling with urine could ease the misery of tooth ache (didn’t matter much who donated the urine, they weren’t fussy).

Scrubbing teeth with a powder made from sage leaves and salt was also popular to make them white. Amongst the herbal remedies, mallow and sage mixed with rosemary and vinegar was supposed to help alleviate gangrene and mouth cancers. The Ancient Greeks used mint in much the same way as we do nowadays to freshen and cleanse their mouths. I can’t imagine Aphrodite would have been so sought after had she suffered from halitosis, with or without her magic girdle!

As with most things, during the middles ages people looked to the Church to solve their problems, including toothache. As the monks were some of the most highly educated people around at the time, it stood to reason that the responsibility of maintaining the populace’s oral hygiene should fall to them. Unfortunately for the average citizen with cavities or indeed a mouth full of rotten teeth, the Church decided somewhere around the late 1100s that the shedding of blood was not appropriate for them and the task of practicing dentistry therefore fell to the Sweeney-Todds of the day. Page Twenty Already familiar with knives and cutting instruments, it was almost a natural progression for them to take on the role of dentist as well.

By the fourteenth century the barbers were completely at ease with their dual role. Their brightly coloured red and white poles were a symbol to all that they were offering a little more than their modern counter-parts with their “something for the weekend, sir?” In fact, just to drive the point home, it was fairly common for them to decorate their poles with the teeth they had extracted. The English however were woefully behind their French counter-parts in dentistry. The French had already set up the Guild of Barber- Surgeons, which would eventually distinguish them from surgeons practicing on the body as opposed to the teeth.


The only anaesthetic likely to be offered was a slug of home-made brew or maybe a potion concocted out of hemlock, opium or even arsenic. Sadly, the arsenic would have probably killed not just the pain but the patient too. You would have to wait until the mid 1800s for the Americans W. Morton and Horace Wells to use anaesthetics for tooth-pulling. The term “laughing gas” was used to describe the mixture of ether and nitrous oxide.

For the very poor, it was not unheard of for them to elect to have all their teeth taken out in one go, thus saving money on dental treatment in the future. It might even be given as a dowry for a young girl before her wedding or a twenty-first birthday gift to a young man. The problem with having a tooth removed though was that it left one with an unsightly gap. Early dentures constructed from wood, bone or ivory lacked enamel and soon rotted and stank. Useful toys-for-boys for those unable to afford dentures were a pair of masticators. These metal jaws, similar to nutcrackers, could be used to pre-crush a mouthful of food.

But all this didn’t need to be a problem for the rich by the time of the eighteenth century, as dental surgeons were experimenting with implants. Wealthy patients would often stump up large sums of money in order to select from a series of donors who would have their own healthy teeth pulled. These healthy teeth were then inserted into the cavity and affixed with silver wire or silk in the belief that they would take root in the new owner’s mouth. Needless to say, “live” implants of teeth was unsuccessful, but it did open up the way for surgical transplants the like of which we are able to enjoy today.

However, if the purse was a little light on ready cash then the more parsimonious could opt for a tooth extracted from a corpse. The resurrecting of teeth was seen as merely being thrifty. After all, the dead didn’t need their teeth anymore. By the nineteenth century a good set of “gnashers” could set you back around five guineas. It was a shame to let that sort of money rot in the ground. After all, the dearly-departed might be waiting for St. Peter at the Pearly Gates, but he wasn’t going to be needing his “pearly-whites” anymore, was he? Europe’s battlefields were an excellent source of “hero’s teeth” and tooth-scavengers would ship them back to England in barrels. What wasn’t so desirable was the unwitting transmission of second-hand TB or syphilis from dead donors.

The Tooth Fairy made her appearance somewhere around the early 1900s, although exactly from whence she came seems uncertain. Usually seen as a good fairy, she has carried away our “baby teeth” in a sort of rites of passage ritual for years, although nowadays it is hard to imagine that the avaricious kids would be as happy as we were with our bright, shiny sixpence discovered under our pillows. From what I hear from my grandchildren, the going rate is a pound.

Fortunately for us, advances in dental treatments came in leaps and bounds. By the end of the nineteenth century dentistry had become a licensed profession. The first person to officially register himself as a dentist was Sir John Tomes. As well as maintaining a register of every case he treated in order to deduce which teeth were those most at risk, Tomes also developed a dental chair and several dental instruments. Gone were the days of using instruments which resembled something out of a Spanish Inquisitor’s toy-cupboard for extracting teeth. Not to mention the tools of the local blacksmith when he too practised dentistry if there wasn’t a handy barber!


The use of the anaesthetic known eventually as Novocain was developed in 1905 by a German chemist and in 1907 a precision casting machine was produced which would enable dentists to create accurate fillings. By the 1930s the American dentist Frederick McKay had discovered that fluoride can significantly help prevent tooth decay. Although it was then added to water it wasn’t added to toothpaste until the 1950s.

Nylon was used in toothbrushes by 1938, although our American cousins didn’t take much to brushing their teeth until after the Second World War. It was a concept they learnt from us when they were stationed abroad. Ironic that they are now such advocates of tooth-whitening, orthodontry and the like.


By the 1960s, as well as the Beatles we also had the release of the electric toothbrush to brighten up our days. No wonder nowadays we take for granted that our teeth should last us for most of our lives rather than be replaced by false teeth, albeit ones made of acrylics or even ceramic.

But sometimes, life has a way of throwing problems at you and this has been the case with my troublesome tooth. Following an infection which meant my mouth swelled up to the size of a hamster’s after a full meal, which only a course of antibiotics would alleviate, I finally have to undergo an extraction tomorrow. Sadly, I doubt the Tooth Fairy will be slipping into my bedroom to place a nice little offering under my pillow.

You can rest assured though that I won’t be filling my next Herman-the-German Friendship cake with nuts of any kind for a long time. In fact, Herman and I aren’t on particularly friendly terms at the time of writing. Still, worse things happen at sea, as my old Gran used to declare. No doubt by this time next week, the pain will be forgotten and Herman forgiven and I will once again settle down to enjoy a nice slice accompanied by a cuppa. But until then, I will drown my sorrows with a large glass of wine and call it medicinal. After all, if the dental patients of old could be given alcoholic pain relief, so can this old dental patient be!

Rye’s Own May 2014

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