Tennessee Mountain Stories

A Toothache - Today and Yesterday

I had a toothache a couple of weeks ago - it was my first one ever and I dearly hope it will be the last.  I was miserable.  Yes, I am a total baby and I do not believe in pain.  But the whole experience got me to thinking...


I write historical fiction and I'm always researching and listening to stories about yesteryear and it's really easy to think those were the "good 'ole days".  In lots of ways they were, but probably not when you had a toothache.

It took me a few days to realize that it was a tooth ache - I first went to my doctor and said, "I think I have an ear infection".  So she pulled the little otoscope off the wall and peered into my ears and declared them clear.  Now, that’s probably a step even a doctor one hundred years ago would have taken since that instrument is very old indeed (about six hundred fifty years old). 

The doctor found no ear infection but she prescribed an antibiotic thinking perhaps it was a sinus issue.  This is probably the first benefit of our modern medicine I enjoyed in this bout – antibiotics.  While scientists were aware of infections and the effects of antibiotics on them by the early 1800’s, the drugs were not commercially available until the late 1930’s.  Remember that during the Civil War, more men died from disease and infections than from actual war injuries; one article I read estimated eighty-three percent of the deaths were from disease and infection.  Even wounds that soldiers survived sometimes plagued them for years after the war because of deep infections left behind by unwitting doctors performing emergency surgery in field hospitals. 

Eventually, when I could no longer bear to bite down, I began to wonder, "Should I go to the dentist?"  My husband was convinced he would pull the tooth while I was sure that modern dentistry extracts a tooth only as a last resort.  However, that was not always the case.  Barbers originally served a dual role and historically, that would have been my destination with my aching tooth and he would almost certainly have pulled the tooth.  Of course, while the local barber (or blacksmith in some instances) was the accepted expert of teeth, he probably had no formal training.  The first school of dentistry opened in 1828 and great leaps were made in dental science in the last half of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century.  Still I wonder how much of that applied to rural communities. 

Even as late as the 1930’s and 1940’s, folks on the mountain lacked both dental care and education.  Look around and ask yourself how many people you know from the World War II generation who died with their own teeth – not many!  Not only were children never reminded to brush their teeth, many of them didn’t even own a toothbrush.  Dental checkups were unheard of and even when water began to be fluoridated in the late 1940’s, rural farms with well water would never benefit from the movement.  Living miles from town and walking wherever they went, it would be hard enough to see a dentist.   But even if you made the trip, money was so scarce that food was often limited to what could be produced on your own farm – that leaves little for a luxury like dental care.  These facts make me feel pretty bad about complaining over my one toothache!  I’ve had a lifetime of routine dental care – I can’t imagine the toothaches many of those families endured. 

You all know that I long for the day when family was the center of everything, when a slower pace of life allowed us to know and enjoy each other.  I relish the memories retold through local legends of neighbors and friends.  But one thing I would not want to trade with the past is modern medical care, a well-trained dentist and pain management!  What do you think?