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The birth of modern dentistry

Before the LDS

Hob and Stage Doctor, published by William Davison, early 19th century (BDA Museum, ref: 10428)Hob and Stage Doctor, published by William Davison, early 19th century (BDA Museum, ref: 10428)Town tooth drawer, published by William Davison, early 19th century (BDA Museum, ref: 10472)Town tooth drawer, published by William Davison, early 19th century (BDA Museum, ref: 10472)In the late eighteenth century there were several groups of people providing dental treatment. Blacksmiths, chemists and druggists would all extract teeth as a sideline to their main business while itinerant tooth drawers would appear at gatherings of people such as market days or the assizes.

There were also practitioners who would treat gum disease and carry out some restorative techniques in addition to extractions. These dentists would practice in their own towns but would also take to the road for several weeks a year advertising their services as they went. They would take their own bag of instruments and would establish temporary rooms in hotels or chemists and would also visit patients in their own homes.

However, there were not many undertaking this practice and it has been estimated that in 1800 there were not many more than 40 dentists in London with about half this number again in the provinces.

The country tooth drawer, published by William Davison, early 19th century (BDA Museum, ref: 10465)The country tooth drawer, published by William Davison, early 19th century (BDA Museum, ref: 10465)Extraction Instruments including pelicans, keys and forceps (BDA Museum)Extraction Instruments including pelicans, keys and forceps (BDA Museum)These dentists came from a variety of backgrounds. Watchmakers and goldsmiths were employed by dentists to make dentures and some ventured into dentistry themselves. Barbers and pharmacists who were extracting teeth as a sideline also took up the trade. There was very little training available to these men. Some dentists could make an additional income from taking on a newcomer for a short course but many were self taught.

By the mid 1800s the number of dentists had grown; there were now about 300 dentists in London, with another 400 in the provinces.

Apprenticeships had become more common. These were usually for between four and seven years and were formalised with an agreement between the apprentice and the dentist. These contained strict rules of behaviour which the apprentice had to abide by.They were required to ensure no loss of the master’s goods, which in some cases meant playing card and dice games and frequenting taverns were also prohibited. Some even specified that matrimony was forbidden.

Apprentices had to be faithful to the master and keep his secrets. Dentists during this period were very secretive.

In the 1896 British Dental Journal A. J. Woodhouse described his experiences as an apprentice to Thomas Sheffield during the 1840s:

'Then all the dentists jealously guarded their modes of practice, few knew other members of the profession, for each worked as a hermit in his cell and allowed no one out of his house to know any detail of his work'.

In return the apprentice would be taught the art of dentistry or mechanical dentistry and could be provided with lodgings and food.

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