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MUSEUM MUSINGS: Early Boone County dentistry was like pulling teeth

Written by David Holsted, published in the Harrison Daily Times, June 4, 2020

The tooth pulling was recalled by a 19th century dentist.

“A burly trapper came into my office,” he said. “He demanded that I pull one of his teeth. I sat him on a low stool, I grasped the tooth with a pair of pliers, and twisted. Immediately, my patient closed his teeth on my thumb. I was in excruciating pain and I grabbed for the first thing at hand. It was a wooden mallet.

“I banged the patient on the head, rendering him unconscious. After wrapping my injured hand in a towel, I finished removing the tooth. The patient was extremely pleased when he awoke, though he also complained, ‘I do not understand why I have such a headache.'”

It was said that the best way to make certain you did not have teeth problems in 1879 was to be born a hundred years later.

In his article “An Easy Pull: Dentistry in the 1800s was a Different Animal,” author Gene Paleno described methods that people used to alleviate a toothache.

“A person in pain could always rely on witchcraft. One remedy was to take a relative’s letter and burn it over a lamp which has been lit for thirty minutes. Then put the ashes in the aching tooth. Voila, no pain. Or, trim your nails on Friday and your tooth trouble will vanish for seven days. Or, get a live red ant and soak the ant in whiskey. Drop it into the cavity and it will sting the nerve to death. Really desperate people rubbed cat manure on a rag. Wrapping the rag around the jaw where it hurt the most eased the pain.”

Boone County had its pioneer dentists, but most of them were of the itinerant kind. In its early years, the county was so sparsely populated that the first dentists had to travel from one community to another to obtain enough work to justify continuing their practice.

Dentists were generally trained by the apprentice system, but there was nothing stopping anyone from taking out newspaper ads claiming to be an “operator on the tooth.” Itinerant dentists roamed the countryside, announced by posters and handbills and stopping a few days at a time. “While many were skilled and reputable dentists dedicated to serving a far-flung population, others were quacks, glad to leave the results of their ineptitude behind as they moved to the next town.”

Itinerant dentists traveled by horseback or horse and buggy, carrying with them the necessary supplies and equipment.

According to Troy Coffman, who began a dentistry practice in Harrison in 1915, most early tooth extractions were done by country doctors. Writing in “Mountain Heritage” in 1969, Coffman said that most country doctors had taken up the practice of medicine after working or studying in the office of another doctor for a short time.

“There was usually someone in the community,” Coffman said, “that had a ‘pair’ of ‘forceps’ that was made by the local blacksmith, and possessed enough nerve to ‘pull’ teeth. In these early days, local anesthesia was not used, so the pioneer patient also had to have lots of nerve.”

According to another source, “Anyone who had pliers, a chair with arm straps to hold the patient down, and a wooden mallet, for use when necessary, could practice dentistry. Few people had teeth pulled back then. You either kept your teeth with all your cavities, or you had the tooth removed when it got so bad you were willing to risk death and infection.”

There were pain killers, after a fashion. Corncob ashes mixed with fresh lard kept the air from reaching the nerve. Green tree-moss mixed with candle wax was another remedy. Moldy bread kneaded into a dough ball was one of the best. The most popular pain deadener was a dab of snuff or a wad of chewing tobacco.

As Boone County’s population grew after the Civil War, it became the home of the first resident dentist.

Franklin Clark Maxey was born in 1836 in Jefferson County, Illinois, and had served in the Union Army during the war. He had little or no previous dental training, although he later registered as both a dentist and physician. He came to Harrison in the 1870s and practiced until the early 1900s. His son, John T. Maxey also registered as a dentist in 1887. Franklin Maxey died in 1912 and was buried in Rose Hill Cemetery.

T. J. Reynolds and J. E. Andrews came to Harrison, where they formed a partnership in 1887. Andrews was a graduate of the Dental Department at Vanderbilt University.

Ralph R. Edwards, a graduate of the Marion-Sims Dental School in St. Louis, established a dental practice in Harrison in 1901. In 1924, he moved to St. Charles, Illinois.

Lafayette F. “Fate” Ellison never attended dental school, but in the 1880s, he started working in the office of Dr. Charles F. Green, a Lead Hill physician. Ellison practiced dentistry in and around Lead Hill, in Marion County and in parts of southern Missouri.

Ellison was issued a license to practice in Arkansas in 1907.

According to Coffman, Ellison first went about his practice in horse and buggy. In 1923, he bought a Model T Ford, and in 1938, he bought a V8 Ford to make his travels. He died in 1941.

“He was a true pioneer dentist,” Coffman said, “a personality still remembered for his wide-brimmed hat, his boots and his heavy beard.”