The Dentist as Hero

Standfirst: without modern dentistry, we’d be toothless crones by the age of 60

When older feminists get together they will sometimes discuss “what development was the greatest benefit to women in our lifetime”. Some name the Pill, some the motor car, some choose better education and career opportunities, some nominate equal pay: I would like to suggest that modern dentistry be added to the list.

Throughout the ages, older women could expect to be toothless crones by their sixties. If nature had her way, I would surely be a toothless crone by now. Ten days ago, as I was chewing gum – a post-cigarette habit I’ve never quit – I felt a sinister, hard lump in my mouth. OMG! Yes! It was the best part of a main tooth, sited near the front of my mouth. The tooth had crumbled from its base and come away. Gummy cronedom beckons.

I rescued the corpse of the crumbled tooth and took it along to the dentist. And within fifteen minutes flat, he had done some sort of magic trick, using an array of lasers, evacuating instruments, and dental cement, put it all back together again. Where there had been a broken shell in my mouth, now there was, once again, a perfectly reconstructed tooth.

The only extraction involved was from my credit card. And I left the dental surgery thinking that when we count out blessings, “the miracle of modern dentistry” should number amongst them.

When oldies recollect their childhoods, they often remember a visit to the dentist as being akin to entering a torture chamber, with the frightful treadle drill and a nauseating smell of antiseptic. The dentist’s chair has remained as an emblem of torment because of such memories. Laurence Olivier did the dental profession no favours when he portrayed the cruel and sinister Nazi dentist in “Marathon Man”, applying excruciating oral pain to Dustin Hoffmann. It hits a nerve not because dentists are cruel people, but because, lying back in the dentist’s chair, we feel vulnerable.

But dentists should be declared heros, really. They have hugely advanced the health and even happiness of humanity. They have consistently relieved pain and are always developing new ways to advance dental surgery. They now routinely check for signs of oral cancer. Dentists themselves can suffer from “transmitted stress” – the stress felt by the patient in the dental chair is communicated to them – and until recently had quite low actuarial ages of death.

They are also said feel “status anxiety”, because dentists traditionally don’t have quite the same social position as doctors. There’s no Jewish joke about the proud mother on a Florida beach shouting – “Help, my son the dentist is drowning!”.

And yet, in America, good dentistry has been greatly prized for decades. When a Balkan friend of mine – a university professor – asked if my sister could help him get a visa for America, Ursula replied: “Yes, but he can’t go to America with those teeth! The taxis would never pick him up! He’ll have to see a dentist!” True, the Serbian academic had poor teeth, but until then I hadn’t realised that bad teeth could be such a stigma in the US. (Question at Homeland Immigration:

“Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party, or do you have bad teeth?”)

When the novelist Martin Amis obtained a million dollars for a book advance the 1990s, he said he needed the money to fix his teeth. This was considered an outrageous act of vanity in London – “all that money for a Liberace smile?” but in New York, it was thought an entirely rational.

Look at any set of American teeth – look at Hillary Clinton when she speaks and smiles. The most perfect set of gnashers that American dentistry can provide. They may be capped, polished, be assisted by implants, and cosmetically whitened, and thus they are faultless. Knocking 70, Hillary, too, would very probably be a toothless crone if dentistry had not corrected nature.

Advanced dentistry has now crossed the Atlantic, and the costs are reflected proportionately. But I think that dental care always cost money. In the 1920s and 1930s, people would have all their teeth extracted at a young age so as to save the expense – and pain – of visiting the dentist for the rest of their lives.

Dental policy, up the the 1960s, favoured extractions as a remedy for tooth problems. Then the policy switched to “save whatever can be saved”. Today it is not only save, but reconstitute, do the root canal work – that’s still an ordeal because you have to lie for so long in one position – implant, rebuild, insert bridges.

Some people still fear visiting the dentist – one person in ten has some phobia about getting into that dental chair. It’s a pity because modern dentistry can do wonders and can change lives. But children today have a much more positive attitude. My grand-daughters shout “Hooray!” when they’re due for a trip to the dentist, because they get all kinds of stickers and colouring books as rewards. It may help that many dentists attending to young children are women, who may indeed be better at treating the very young.

And they’re thrilled when they’re told they may have to wear dental braces. It’s a status symbol among school kids.

Arthur MacMurrough Kavanagh, a Westminster MP for Carlow in the 1860s, was born without legs or arms, yet he wrote at the end of his life, that the greatest affliction he had known was excruciating toothache. We should appreciate the great achievements of modern dentistry a lot more than perhaps we do.@MaryKenny4.

Irish Independent Magazine

17 September 2016