In one of my novels I have Cliff Hardy remark that painless dentistry and being able to pause live television are the two crowning technological improvements of the past 20 years. It was a joke, of course, but close enough to truth regarding dentistry.
When very young, I went a couple of times to the Footscray Dental Clinic, which was free. My parents didn’t have the money for private dental treatment and, in the working class, regular check-ups and preventative dentistry were unknown. If you had a toothache you used oil of cloves to control the pain and had the tooth either filled or pulled. In the previous generation (and it was not uncommon in mine), people had upper or lower or both sets of teeth extracted, including sound ones, to head off future expense or to get the whole horrible business over in one go.
The clinic was a chamber of horrors, painted a sickly institutional green and smelling of disinfectant and fear. Long waits and rough treatment. I don’t know whether we were worked on by trainees or not, but the process was ghastly. No novocaine, of course, and when the crude drill hit a nerve the pain was intense.
It was a matter of ‘Open!’ ‘Close!’ ‘Rinse!’ and ‘Don’t be a sook.’ Later, when my parents had some health insurance cover through the Manchester Unity Independent Order of Oddfellows (the Lodge my father belonged to, although he never went to meetings), I went to a local private dentist. He was a florid-faced, avuncular type with a pretty nurse. I have a suspicion dentists favoured pretty nurses as a partial antidote to the general fear of going to them.
By this time novocaine was used in private dental practices but only for large fillings or extractions. I had several large fillings and one extraction, but some minor fillings were done without novocaine and there was always the danger of touching a nerve.
The drill was slow and the whole procedure seemed to take an eternity. I used to tell myself, It’ll all be over in an hour, as I sat with clenched fists in the chair and shut my eyes. It was less scary with the novocaine but the injection hurt (it felt as though the needle was going right down into the jaw) and was sometimes slow to take effect.
I went once to a dentist in Palo Alto, California, when we were there for Jean’s Stanford Writing Fellowship year. Everything was far more soothing than at home. I had a seriously decayed tooth and the dentist wanted to do a root canal. Apart from the prohibitive cost, I still had the working-class attitude to teeth.
‘We like to preserve the dentition,’ said the dentist, who was styled Doctor, in the American manner.
‘Pull it!’ I said and he did.
In the early 1990s, with my teeth extensively dotted with deteriorating dark amalgam, I was persuaded by a Glebe dentist to have it all replaced with ceramic fillings. This took many sessions but was financially and physically painless. Financially, because I had high-level private health insurance, and physically because of the blessing of the numbing of the gum before the injection. For those who could afford it, painless dentistry had arrived.
Fluoridation, high-speed drilling and gum numbing have been the great advances in dentistry. And we call dentists Doctor now; just another way in which, over time, we have become more and more like California.
Have a nice weekend.