The 9th of February is St Apollonia’s Day. She was martyred at Alexandria in 249 AD during the persecution of Emperor Decius. She was attacked during an anti-Christian riot and struck around the face knocking her teeth out. Then, she was taken to a bonfire and told they would throw her in if she did not renounce her faith. So, without waiting, she spoke a prayer and walked into the fire. This information is recorded in a near-contemporary letter from St Dionysius of Alexandria and so is a rare well documented martyrdom. Because her teeth were knocked out she is, therefore, Saint of Toothache.
I can remember my Grandmother prescribing cloves for me when I had toothache. And this was, and is, a common remedy. In my case, we would keep a clove or two in the mouth close to the site of the pain. According to Natural Ways to Sooth an Toothache cloves contain
‘Eugenol, a natural form of anaesthetic and antiseptic that helps get rid of germs. Eugenol is still used in dental materials today’
Dr John Hall, Shakespeare’s son-in-law, tended to use a pill to soothe sore gums, but also a oil from a wood called ‘Ol. Lig. Heraclei’ which may be oil from the Bay Tree. (‘John Hall and his Patients’ by Joan Lane). Most of his tooth cases seem to be sore gums, which suggests to me Dr John Hall did not generally do dental work.
To get a tooth drawn you could go to a Barber Surgeon, a Blacksmiths or specialist Tooth Drawer. This would be terrifyingly painful and probably only done when the pain was unbearable, but just think what a premium could be demanded by a really competent drawer. The drawers would probably not have any formal training, but the skills would be passed on by the drawer to his apprentice or assistant. So, they were a very important part of the health care system.
‘Teeth’ was a common cause of death – most likely being from infection or an abscess. It is interesting that someone as erudite and educated as the 17th Century writer, John Aubrey tells us in a chapter on Magick of less formal ways of tooth care. He tells us, in places, that the person who told him the story is worthy of belief. So he seems to give some credence to the efficacy of these magickal ‘cures’. But, judge for yourself; this is what he wrote:
To Cure the Tooth-ach.
Take a new Nail, and make the Gum bleed with it, and then drive it into an Oak. This did Cure William Neal, Sir William Neal’s Son, a very stout Gentleman, when he was almost Mad with the Pain, and had a mind to have Pistoll’d himself.
To Cure the Tooth-ach, out of Mr. Ashmole’s Manuscript Writ with his own Hand.
Mars, hur, abursa, aburse.
Iesu Christ for Marys sake,
Take away this Tooth-ach.
Write the words, Three times; and as you say the Words, let the Party burn one Paper, then another, and then the last.
He says, he saw it experimented, and the Party immediately Cured
In 1832, in London Bishop, Williams and May were accused of bodysnatching. After killing the Italian Boy ( wonderful book by Sarah Wise ‘The Italian Boy‘) they jemmied out the teeth and took them to a South London Dentist. They ‘cheapened’ (I cheap, you cheap, we are cheapening: meaning to barter) with the Dentist to get a decent price for the teeth. The dentist wanted to use them for false teeth for his patients. If I remember correctly, he paid £1 for them.
The teeth were evidence in the trial of the murderers, and once two of them had been hanged (the third turned King’s Evidence), the dentist asked for the teeth back! They were released back to the Dentist who promptly put them in the window of his surgery as an advert for his professional skills!
Earlier, one of the Borough Boys Resurrectionist gang (based in Southwark, London) toured the battlefields of the Peninsular Wars and came back with hundreds of teeth extracted from dead soldiers to sell to dentists as false teeth – they became known as Waterloo Teeth.
When I first wrote this in I added ‘How things have changed!’, but recent news that people in parts of Britain, without effective access to Dental care, have begun resorted to doing their own dental work. This often means extracting their own rotten teeth. Effectively, it seems this Conservative Government is allowing dentistry to slip out of the NHS just like it did with eye health. For a study in what has happened to Dentistry in the UK in recent years, please look at this report here.
First writen February 2023, revised February 2024.