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Quack “dentists” would mix dental services with entertainment, offering to pull a tooth for free if the patient bought a ticket to a show.


The year Canada officially became a country in 1867, another momentous occasion happened in the world of dentistry that you probably haven't heard of but are just as thankful for. The Ontario Dental Association (ODA) was formed.

Up until that time, people would let their teeth rot rather than go to the dentist because in those days, anyone with a pair of pliers could, and sometimes would, call themselves a dentist. There were essentially two types of dental practitioners offering their "services" to an unwitting public.

The first was made up of a motley crew of quacks, charlatans, wanderers and con artists of varying ruthlessness. These men would travel from town to town, staying for just a few days in each place and seldom returning to the same location twice, lest they be remembered for the oral carnage they left in their wake. Known collectively as "tramp dentists," they had little knowledge of dental science or sanitary practices. They worked for low fees and were very difficult to find when their patients developed problems. A trip to the wrong dentist could mean you were putting your life on the line.

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Dr. Henry Wood, a dentist in Picton, Ont., at the time aptly described them as "men who went about the country ignorantly and presumptuously talking dentistry to the curious crowds which gathered to listen to them, and sometimes before the victim was aware of his intentions the dirty fingers of a dental vagabond would enter a rustic's mouth and many a good molar would be doomed."

"The country was infested with these quacks and truly some were curiosities," noted Dr. George Relyea, a dentist in Belleville, Ont., during this archaic era. "One came to my rooms and prided himself on having filled seven cavities before breakfast, his patient an apprentice, his office the blacksmith shop, and his operating chair, a wooden horse."

Some of these hucksters even mixed health care with entertainment, offering to pull your tooth for free if you bought a ticket to a show, and providing live demonstrations of laughing gas.

It's not hard to imagine why people were absolutely terrified of going to the dentist in those days! Thankfully, there was a second type of dentist, albeit a member of a much smaller group. There were some individuals who had earned a proper education through formal dental training and scientific expertise in the tradition of Pierre Fauchard, the brilliant French dental surgeon who is widely considered the father of modern dentistry. Many of these men were physicians with an interest in dentistry while others had learned their profession by serving an apprenticeship with an experienced practitioner.

Legitimate dental practice in pre-confederation Ontario contrasted sharply with the ease of quack dentistry rituals. In an era before electricity, dentists performed all operations by hand. These techniques required both skill, sanitation and caution, but even in Ontario's most populated cities it was hard to find a dentist. Locals had little choice but to put aside their fears and intuition and seek care from unskilled, travelling practitioners.

Because of a lack of rules and regulation, it wasn't uncommon to see gunsmiths, wagon makers and even candy makers hanging signs in their window offering dental services. Some patients would head to their local blacksmith when they got a toothache – having their teeth pulled in the same barn where horses got their shoes!

Properly trained and educated dentists were understandably outraged to be lumped in with the kind of fly-by-night dentistry, outrageously false advertising and cut-rate treatment people had come to know and even expect. In the absence of any control or standards, the public had no means to distinguish good dentistry from poor dentistry. Authentic dentists were genuinely concerned about the public's welfare.

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There was a growing desire in the dental community to address these very real problems by introducing proper regulations to protect the public from barbaric standards of care and false advertising.

By March, 1868, a group of dedicated dentists led by Dr. Barnabas Day succeeded in having An Act Respecting Dentistry passed in the Ontario legislature. This was the first act of its kind in the world to grant self-regulation to dentists. This meant it would be much easier for patients to figure out if they were getting treatment from a qualified dentist or a dangerous impostor.

The act became a model for similar legislation across Canada and around the world.

This content was produced by the Ontario Dental Association. The Globe and Mail was not involved in its creation.

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