This essay was originally published in Smile, Hon, You’re in Baltimore #15 (issues are available here: http://www.eightstonepress.com/hon/hon15.htm) ENJOY!
Pulling Teeth: 32 Meditations on a Trip to the National Museum of Dentistry in Baltimore
1. I have often been wary of the intentions of dentists. I know dentistry is a vital field of medicine. Every day dentists get a chance to play a critical role in society by helping individuals in pain. And I’m aware that it is a lucrative profession – I have the dental bills to prove it. These are both acceptable reasons for aspiring to a career in dentistry and I am embarrassed that I distrust such a noble occupation. But I can’t help being suspicious of anyone whose life revolves around teeth.
The smell of latex rubber and burning teeth disarms me. I shudder when I imagine the mind of a young person who dreams of these things, but I guess the world needs dentists.
2. The National Museum of Dentistry is located in Baltimore, where the world’s first dental school was founded in 1840. Before that, dentistry was more like woodworking than a biological science.
The museum is a temple erected to teeth and the dental profession. I have stayed away from it my entire life. Teeth creep me out.
3. I have always wanted dentures. Both my grandparents had them and I was jealous. They never had to brush. They just plopped their teeth in a cup full of bubbles at the end of the night. They never had to worry about cavities or chipped teeth, I thought. They had evolved past all that.
4. Near the entrance to the museum is a fiberglass box on the wall. The box holds what appears to be a piece of antique fetish equipment attached to a noose-like loop of hemp rope. The leather bite-piece is punctured by tooth marks and stained with a crescent moon of pink lipstick. The piece belonged to Penny Wilson who at the age of twelve became an “Iron Jaw” performer, dangling from a bit fashioned out of a shoe heel and a metal hook for captive audiences in the early 1950’s. In addition to looking like S&M gear, the device fits in perfectly with the dental tools in the collection. If it was not placed next to a display depicting the circus act, I would’ve assumed it had been used for medical purposes.
5. If you add pointy teeth to a smiley face or a stick figure, the smiley face or stick figure becomes evil.
6. Ambrose Bierce also distrusted dentists. This is how he defined them in The Devil’s Dictionary: “Dentist, n.: A Prestidigitator who, putting metal in one’s mouth, pulls coins out of one’s pockets.”
My fear is that they are far more perverse than that.
7. The museum is really neat. Besides an extensive array of obscure toothbrushes and torture devices, there are also a lot of things for kids to play with, including a make-believe dental exam room and a flossing station for when they are done learning about the importance of saliva or the process of identifying human remains using forensic dental records. There are also vintage dental commercials, colorful cartoon-themed toothbrushes, and a giant narwhal suspended in midair!
8. The tooth fairy is a mythical creature found in Western culture that purchases baby teeth in the middle of the night. Imagine how scary it would be if the tooth fairy were real. Imagine someone ordering baby teeth online.
9. In the exhibit on forensic dentistry, the museum plays video footage of the September 11th attack on the World Trade Center along with a reel containing footage from other large-scale disasters. I stood in the empty museum and watched. I thought about the men and women whose job it was to sift through all the wreckage, looking for teeth.
10. George Washington’s real fake teeth are not made out of wood. They are made out of ivory, thank you very much, and reside in Baltimore at the National Museum of Dentistry. The museum also has the forceps used to extract one of Washington’s teeth at Middlebrook, New Jersey in 1777. I think of the great General moaning of toothache inside his tent. I try to imagine the field doctor’s thoughts. “Just in case we win this war,” he must’ve been thinking. “I better hold onto these forceps.”
11. The man who invented the cotton candy machine was a dentist. He originally called the sweet balls of fluff “Fairy Floss”. The machine he invented to spin it is still in use worldwide.
12. I used to love losing my teeth as a child. It’s not just that I wanted the tooth fairy to visit, although I certainly did, but that the tooth began to feel foreign in my mouth as soon as it was loose. Like it was somebody else’s tooth almost. I wanted it out right away. I would twist and turn the tooth with my tongue; as it got looser I would push at it with my pen knife or the corner of my dresser, which happened to be covered in stickers that I got at the dentist. When the tooth came out I would run and show my parents, so they could go to the ATM. Then I would wait until bedtime, stroking my tongue over the exposed roots and feeling like a weight had been lifted off my back.
13. If you have a toothache, you should pray to Saint Apollonia. An early Christian Deaconess, Apollonia had her teeth removed one by one with pincers after being seized by a mob in Alexandria. She is pictured in Catholic art holding a pair of forceps and a single molar. The museum contains a stained glass window, as well as a series of Warhol prints, depicting the saint in this pose.
14. The world’s first wireless transmission was sent between two kites on the top of two mountains in Virginia by a little-known man named Mahlon Loomis who, when he was not manipulating the airwaves, made his living by pulling teeth.
15. The museum is currently hosting a travelling exhibit dedicated to saliva. Visitors can identify saliva molecules under a magnifying glass. There is even a station for sniffing samples of good and bad breath. Viewing of this exhibit is included in your general admission. (Note: This part of the visit made me inexplicably thirsty.)
16. The first patent for chewing gum is held by a dentist. The gum was intended to clean teeth. It was made from rubber and gum resins. A number of ingredients were added to improve flavor, including myrrh, licorice root, sugar, and charcoal. The gum was never manufactured for commercial use. A gap in the myrrh-flavored gum market exists to this day.
17. Before a scientific understanding of tooth decay became common in the Western world, many believed that a demonic creature called a “Tooth Worm” was responsible for their dental woes. Dentists would try to smoke the worm out with poison. When I learned this at the museum I felt sick, imagining the foul job combination of dentist/exterminator.
18. During the Victorian period, dentists commonly extracted teeth from paid donors to make dentures for the wealthy. I think I would have sold my teeth and purchased dentures with the proceeds.
19. Nitrous oxide was introduced to the practice of dentistry on December 11th, 1844. Along with ether and chloroform, it was in use as an anesthetic throughout the Victorian period. I learned this fact separately from the last one about selling teeth, but now it occurs to me that they may be related.
20. Teeth are not the only thing that bothers me about my body. I also find my toenails and fingernails alarming. I am glad there is not a toenail museum in Baltimore yet. I’m not ready to write about that.
21. When I was in high school, I used to open bottles with my teeth. Sometimes when no one is looking and I don’t have anything to open a bottle with, I still do.
22. If you still don’t think teeth can be disturbing: Consider them clacking together during an open-mouth kiss.
23. According to the National Museum of Dentistry, the following are ways in which teeth are used to identify deceased victims of violent crime and disaster: Radiograph comparison, DNA identification, comparison of dental records, comparison of bite marks.
24. Inside the museum, there is a little test tube containing a human tooth that has been ground into a fine white powder. I think it has something to do with the DNA testing. I didn’t linger to make sure. No matter how much they resemble baby powder, I find ground up teeth difficult to look at.
25. In a glass case containing a majestic, spiraled narwhal tusk, there are also a number of postage stamps depicting narwhal. Narwhal are native to the frigid waters of Greenland and the Arctic Circle, but the stamps come from places as far off as Antigua and Tanzania. I couldn’t help but smile when I saw them. I imagined people all over the world sending each other little pictures of narwhal.
26. I am intrigued by something a friend once told me about; a rodeo event called “Bulldogging”. Originally, the cowboy would ride along next to a longhorn steer before leaping and wrestling the animal to the ground. In order to subdue the steer, the cowboy would bite the animal on its upper lip in the manner of a working bulldog. I wonder if a cowboy could be born blessed with “good bulldogging teeth”.
27. Sometimes people dream about their teeth falling out, or having hollow teeth. This is a common nightmare. In the Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud theorized that nightmares of this nature were centered on onanism, or guilt for the sin of masturbation. I wonder how the Tooth Fairy or the Tooth Worm might play into this theory.
28. Dr. Edward Maynard, a dentist and professor at the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery, became famous for his invention of the Maynard Rifle. The Maynard was a breechloading rifle in heavy use by both Confederate and Union Armies throughout the Civil War. Many lives were lost to a shot from the Maynard Rifle. Sometimes the bodies were identified by their teeth.
29. I currently have multiple cavities that I can’t afford to do anything about. Usually, I don’t think about them. After I’d spent enough time in the museum, I got paranoid and they began to throb.
30. The dentist I grew up with was eventually arrested for growing large amounts of marijuana. I felt bad when it happened because he was a nice man and good dentist. I knew his family and they were nice too. But I remember that my immediate reaction, before I had time to feel bad for him, was to wonder why he hadn’t picked a more pleasurable front than dentistry.
31. When my teeth hurt, I drink too much. Even when my teeth feel weird in my mouth, I drink too much. When I think about teeth, I drink too much. After the museum, I needed drinks.
32. I have always suspected that I was not cut out for dentistry. For one thing, I am not stable. I would never trust myself with something as important as the human mouth; I am surprised my girlfriend even let’s me kiss her. Baltimore’s own H.L Mencken would seem to agree. In Prejudices, he wrote: “The harsh, useful things of the world, from pulling teeth to digging potatoes, are best done by men who are as starkly sober as so many convicts in the death-house, but the lovely and useless things, the charming and exhilarating things, are best done by men with, as the phrase is, a few sheets in the wind.”
Cheers to that.