Every science has its beginnings in myth and folklore. Early dental practices, in particular, are deeply tied to the mysticism surrounding the teeth and tongue. Because the mouth is the center of speech and nourishment, diverse cultures treat dental events in their lives with respect.
There is a universal human belief that teeth confer power. These remedies and practices were intended to cultivate that power-by keeping teeth for a lifetime. The same spirit-much refined-motivates modern dentistry.
For relief, boil earthworms in oil and pour into the ear on the side where there is pain (Pliny, 77 AD).
Pour juice of onions by drops into the mouth, bite a piece of wood struck by lightning (ibid.).
Put tobacco in the armpit; hold a heated root of a birch on the cheek; or hold a small frog against the cheek or lick a toad’s abdomen (Norwegian folklore).
Lay roasted parings of turnips, as hot as they may be, behind the ear; keep the feet in warm water, and rub them well with bran, just before bedtime (John Wesley, 1747).
“Round the tooth to be drawn, he fastened a strong piece of catgut; to its other end he affixed a bullet. Then he charged a pistol with this bullet and a full measure of powder. The firing performed a speedy and effectual removal of the offending tooth” (Dr. Monsey, 1788).
In the US and Europe, the blacksmith did extractions, presumably because they had the “proper tools.”
“If one had a tooth extracted, it must be burned, because, if a dog got it and swallowed it, one would have a dog’s tooth come in its place” (Dr. Holmes, 1862).
To clean the teeth, rub them with the ashes of burnt bread (Poor Will’s Almanack, 1780).
To stable and steadfast the teeth, and to keep the gummes in good case, it shall be very good every day in the morning to wash well the mouth with red wine (London, 1598).
In parts of England, the superstition persists: one prevents a toothache by “clothing one’s right leg prior to the left” (G.P. Foley, 1972).
To make the teeth of children grow hastily, take the brain of a hen and rub the gums therewith. It shall make them grow without any sorrow or diseases or aching (London, 1934).
Roast the brains of a rabbit and rub a small amount on the gums (US, 1942).