Open Wide! Let’s See Those Pearly Whites!

Open Wide! Let’s See Those Pearly Whites!

Sami Windle Behind The Scenes, Goodland's Treasures

The tooth is the hardest part of the body, but that doesn’t mean it is impenetrable.  Cavities can form even in the best cared for mouth.   Cavities form when the enamel covering the tooth becomes covered with plaque.  The plaque builds up and secretes acid.  This acid will eventually create a hole in the tooth, or cavity. Now image you live in the Middle Ages when dental hygiene wasn’t something you were conscious of or very high on your priority list.  What would you do if you had a cavity?  Today your cavity would be filled by a drill, but a very different looking drill than the one we have in our collection here at the High Plains Museum.

Mankind has been drilling into teeth since the Stone Age.  A male skull was found which proved to have a hole drilled into one of the back molars.  The Mayans also drilled holes in teeth, more for rituals than for dental practice, but their method was very sophisticated.  They would drill into the tooth by twirling a cylinder of sorts made of a very hard material, like jade, between their hands to create a perfect round hole.  Unfortunately the art of drilling was lost over the years and dentists had to resort to other, often painful ways to keep the patients tooth.  In the Middle Ages dentists realized they needed to fill the cavity with something but also remove the decaying part of the tooth.  Substances like cobwebs and resin were used to fill the cavities but because of the lack of drills, dentists had to rely on the cracks and holes that appeared naturally to scrape out the decayed part of the tooth.

In the mid 1600’s small chisels found their way to dentist’s hands.  These chisels could break away parts of the enamel where a small hole could be formed.  The dentist would try to get out the entire decayed part of the tooth and insert strips of gold foil as a filling.  This was a difficult task though and very few dentists could accomplish this with the tools of the time.  What made dentistry even trickier was that dentists kept how they performed their techniques to themselves, so there was no standard for dentistry.  Pierre Fauchard would change all that in 1728 and become the founder of modern dentistry.

Pierre Fauchard - the father of modern dentistry
Pierre Fauchard – the father of modern dentistry

Fauchard was born in 1978 in Northern France.  He enlisted in the French Royal Navy at age fifteen where he learned about mouth disease.  After three years in the Navy he left to start his own dental practice at the University of Angers Hospital.  There he worked diligently on practices and techniques for dentists.  He discovered the cause of cavities and that by limiting the sugar one ate could help prevent them.  Fauchard was an advocate of filling cavities after drilling and worked to create his own fillings.  He eventually moved to Paris where after searching for dentistry books discovered there were no good books on dentistry.  To fix this problem, he wrote one.  It was called The Surgical Dentist and contained pictures and diagrams of the practices of dentistry.

Anselme Jourdain, a dentist from Paris, also published a book on dental practices.  His book however contained a picture for an instrument that would become the mechanical drill.  This instrument was large and probably not very exact.  The dentist would place one hand on the drill and the other hand on a crank which would rotate a gear to make the drill work.

John Greenwood
John Greenwood

During the eighteenth century, France was the center of dentistry but in the late 1700’s America started to make headway into the profession and by the early 1800’s America had replaced France as the center for dentistry.  In 1790 John Greenwood of New York City made the first foot powered drill.  It was made from an old spinning wheel of his mothers and was used not for drilling into teeth but for making artificial dentures.  He used this on his most famous patient, George Washington.  (Contrary to popular belief Washington’s teeth were not made of wood but that’s another story which you can read about by here.)  In spite of the usefulness of Greenwood’s invention, other dentists did not use this particular drill for ¾ of a century.

Even though the foot powered drill was not used, dentists invented other drills over the years.  These drills were often difficult to use and most dentists preferred to use a hand drill, much like the Mayans, that could be twirled between their hands. This changed in 1868 with an invention by George F. Green.

The first mass produced foot powered dental drill was invented by George F. Green and manufactured by S.S. White Company.  The drill had a pneumatic or air-filled engine and ran on a foot operated bellows.  The air is what made the drill rotate and a rubber tube carried the air to the hand piece where a small drill or bur was attached.  In 1870, James Beall Morrison invented and patented a foot powered dental drill that while similar to Green’s was better.  It was more efficient and effective than any other foot or hand powered drills of the time.  Morrison’s foot powered drill could reach 2,000 revolutions per minute while most hand powered drills could reach only 100.  When it was first manufactured the drill cost roughly $60 which for the 1870’s was expensive.  This meant that only a few dentists could afford to have this piece of machinery.  However as more drills were produced the cost came down to around $20 which made it affordable to the vast majority of dentists.

High Plains Museum | P167 Foot pedal powered dental drill used by Dr. Steever.
High Plains Museum |
Foot pedal powered dental drill used by Dr. Steever.

The dental drill we have in our collection is similar to these described above.  Our drill was used by Dr. H.M. Steever in his practice here in Goodland.  Dr. Steever and his family moved here in 1918 and soon opened up his own dentist office.  Steever served as mayor of Goodland from 1929-1937.  It was during this time the Municipal Light Plant was built and the City honored Steever by naming the park by the Light Plant, Steever Park.  He was also the Boothroy Memorial Hospital anesthetist for thirty years.  Steever spent forty-one years of his life in Goodland and was an active member of our community until the day he died in 1959.

The foot powered drill became a success and companies started to improve upon the design.  The S.S. White Company was a leader in this area and produced the first practical electric dental engine, the first motorized drill which attached to the dental chair, and introduced the first foot control which made it unnecessary to turn the motor on and off by hand.  With electricity reaching more people and the electric dental drill becoming affordable, dentists could outfit their offices with electricity much easier.  This cut down on the time it took to fill a cavity to just ten minutes!

In 1902 the folding arm was introduced which transferred power from the engine to the hand piece by way of an uninterrupted belt that traveled over a series of pulleys.  With this new technology the foot powered drills started to fade out and were no longer used.  It was not until 1915 when the dental unit was invented that foot powered drills made a comeback.  The dental unit combined the electric engine, foot powered engine, the folding arm, a light and other instruments.  This is similar to what we are used to today when we sit back in the dentist’s chair.

Today’s tools are very different from the dental tools of yesteryear.  From the hand powered dental drill of the Mayans to the foot powered dental drill of Dr. Steever the world of dentistry has grown.  These innovations and inventions have helped make the art of filling cavities a more precise practice and a less painful one for the patient, which I think we can all appreciate.  With no pain medication or anesthesia would you elect to have a cavity filled in the 1800’s?  Objects like the foot powered dental drill help us see how far a profession has come as well as the American ingenuity behind inventions like these.

Look for more posts in this series about our wonderful collection of Sherman County history.