O my tooth, my tooth, no Remedy takes Effect, I’ve had continual Pain of it all Day. Richard Kay
Reading accounts of unrelenting, debilitating oral disease by those born in an era without anesthesia and pain medications fascinate me. The further one travels back in diaries, journals and medical records, the closer one can appreciate the devastating consequence of the poor oral health which our forbearers endured. Numerous accounts exist in the literature illustrating how quality of life and longevity suffered when a toothache completely stopped any routine acts of daily living.
According to some diaries I have read which were written in the 1700s, toothaches were considered more painful than birth-labor. And this was recorded from women who had experienced both! Hargreaves in White as Whales Bone, a study of dental services from late medieval to early modern England, writes, “dental pain was by far the commonest cause for complaint, stretching the patience of many even in an age where the relative lack of analgesics necessitated stoicism”.
Even Catherine the Great, wrote of her travails with her teeth. For example, in late 1749 outside of St. Petersburg in Tsarskoe Selo, she found herself overwhelmed with intense pain and agony caused by a tooth that had been disturbing her for about 5 months. Her physician, Dr. Boerhave, had taken a wait and see approach to her dental disease as surgery could easily cause worse complications. Catherine begged him for relief and finally Dr. Boerhave reluctantly employed Monsieur Guyon, a French physician, to perform the extraction. With Catherine sitting and two men holding her hands, the surgeon extracted the offending tooth. Catherine recorded in her diary that Guyon “had pulled out a piece of my lower jaw, to which the tooth was attached…I was put to bed and was in great pain for 4 weeks, not leaving my room until the middle of January. Even then, on the lower part of my cheek, I still had in the form of blue and yellow bruises, the imprint of Guyon’s five fingers.”