For many years in Ontario we had a neighbour named Dr. Paine. He was a dentist who had his office in the city. He was cool and reserved. The dentist in our small town was much different, a bustling little man who always seemed somewhat confused. He once took out one of my sister’s few perfect teeth rather than the decayed one next to it.
The seven of us visited him when there was a dire need, never for any sort of check-up. His dental chair was set up in a small parlour. His assistant was his wife, a silent, smiling woman who mixed up potions and fillings as best she could, being legally
Sometime later, it occurred to me that the Creator, or evolution, had decided that humans should have a built-in feature that would put a roadblock in their way as they tripped happily down the road of life. That roadblock would be teeth. What other explanation is there for a mouth full of individual objects, each with a different function, when a solid enamel ridge with pointed sections would have been much kinder?
However, when dentist dread sets in it may help to think about how dental issues were dealt with in the past, before gum-numbing lotions, and freezing that can kill the pain even if it seems to involve six-inch needles.
Jay Houseman was a real cowboy. He was handsome enough to be invited to Hollywood for a screen test, which he declined. But mostly he was known as just plain tough. When he was 11, he and some other boys were racing their horses on Bates Road, near Forest Grove. His horse slipped on a patch of ice and rolled on Houseman’s leg.
When he was taken home, his mother sprawled across the boy on the floor while his father straightened the leg, wrapped canvas around it, and then laced the canvas with a piece of soft wet rawhide. It was 11 months before he could stand on the leg.
He described that experience as just something that happened. But dental problems were much more traumatic.
“There was no dentist of course,” he said. “ Your teeth would get rotten and ache. Pa would get a piece of haywire and put a sharp bend in the end. He’d heat it in the stove. Mother was a big, skookum woman. She’d hold me down tight in a chair. When the wire was red-hot, Pa would jam it into the hole in the tooth. It would kill the nerve and the tooth would fall out. The only thing you’d feel was when he left the wire in too long.”
In the early 1920s, a doctor began to visit the Bridge Lake area once a month, setting up a clinic at the Larson home on Judson Road. The term general practitioner covered dental work as well in those days. There were always a few teeth for the doctor to pull.
Later on, an itinerant dentist named Dr. Tyreman set up shop regularly at the Larsons’ kitchen table. Noveta Leavitt remembered standing with a terrified group of children waiting to be dragged in to see him.
“The older kids teased us that he was really a rough horse doctor with big pliers and sharp tools. We could hear all the ruckus and the torment going on in that kitchen while we waited.”
Like Jay Houseman and Noveta Leavitt, Toody Shirran grew up on a homestead. The Shirrans settled at Canim Lake in 1925. Any medical and dental emergency was taken care of at home.
The four Shirran girls were blessed with good teeth. In 2013, at the age of 93, Toody was proud of the fact that she still had all of her teeth, despite having had little dental care through the years. She said that she knew why her teeth were so good.
“We all had strong teeth. Why here I am and I still have all of mine. I can chew bones as good as I ever did. I remember my husband would shoot grouse and he’d eat the breast meat and I’d eat the marrow and then chew up the bones.”
So we can be relieved to live in an age of enlightened dentistry. I recall seeing “Painless Dentistry” written on a dentist’s shingle. (Or was it in Mad magazine?). An oxymoron perhaps, but let’s be honest. Things in the chair are much improved. Check out a website showing the problems dentists face. They are indeed a brave and creative lot.