A 19th-century skull with tooth abscesses
A 19th-century skull with tooth abscesses from the M.H. Cryer Anatomical Collection at Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia

 

By Jane Schmucker

Skulls with teeth emerging from the wrong places don’t tend to get featured in state tourism ads.

Nor do vast collections of old dentures. Or trays of tools that – along with a detailed explanation of how they were used to pull teeth back in the day – could make most tourists queasy.

But if you have time for a road trip this summer – or even a few minutes to browse the internet – there are several dental and medical museums that promise to make memories for anyone with an interest in the profession or their own set of chompers.

The Mutter Museum in Philadelphia, known for its medical oddities, has a skull that museum special projects manager Emily Snedden Yates describes as “really odd” with a tooth protruding from between nose and lip.

Another skull at the Mutter provides museum-goers evidence that the original owner died of a tooth abscess.

The museum’s collection of more than 2,000 accidentally swallowed objects includes numerous partial dentures.

Then there is the dental key that resembles a wine cork, with its hook to wrap around a tooth and remove it, that Ms. Snedden Yates describes as “pretty gruesome.”

Dental instruments and specimens number perhaps 80 items at the Mutter and are only a sidelight in its collection that includes Einstein’s brain, a jaw tumor of President Grover Cleveland, a specimen from John Wilkes Booth’s vertebra, and a plaster cast and conjoined liver of Siamese twins Chang and Eng.

But dental artifacts are part of what helps the Mutter claim to be “American’s finest museum of medical history” and count 130,000 visitors a year.

 

The Birthplace of Dental Education

In rural southcentral Ohio, the Dr. John Harris Dental Museum might not have attracted as many visitors throughout its 50-year history as the Mutter gets in a single year.

It’s the spot, however, that history books refer to as the birthplace of dental education in the United States.

The Dr. John Harris Dental Museum in Bainbridge, Ohio
The Dr. John Harris Dental Museum in Bainbridge, Ohio

Dr. John Harris, born in 1798, moved in 1825 from Cincinnati, one of the larger U.S. cities at the time, to Bainbridge, Ohio. About 80 miles from Cincinnati, Bainbridge, then a village of a couple of hundred people, would have seemed a world away and Dr. Harris was likely the only doctor in the area, according to David Tillis, the museum’s volunteer curator.

By 1827, a local newspaper was reporting that Dr. Harris, who focused on dentistry, was preparing to instruct a private class of medical students. Lectures were delivered three evenings a week in his small home on Main Street to ten young men. Nine of them became dentists, including a few who became known as leaders of their time.

Dr. Harris’s brother, Chapin Harris, who was already a medical doctor when he took the dental classes, went on to found the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery. Also from that original class was James Taylor, who established the Ohio College of Dental Surgery at Cincinnati.

So was that the first-ever dental school?

“There’s no record of anything earlier,” says Mr. Tillis, a former university librarian and president of the Bainbridge Historical Society, which operates the museum.

No personal possessions of Dr. Harris remain, and the museum doesn’t have many details of his life. The only original artifact is the home itself, which is thought to have been built around 1820.

Since the 1930s, when some dentists in Chillicothe, the county-seat, started the preservation effort of the Harris home, period dental items have been collected. Today, visitors can tour all three rooms on the first floor of the Harris home (they don’t get to visit the cellar or attic) and also pass through a 1985 addition. It features dental office setups from 1890 and 1924.

There are displays of dentures, mostly from the 1800s but also some from the 1700s, including one set carved in ivory.

There are early dental chairs, among them a rocking chair that could be adjusted to the proper reclining state by wedging a log under the rockers.

There are some early dental machines, such as a Ritter X-ray from the 1930s, and a tongue scraper made of ivory and tortoise shell – “a beautiful little piece,” Mr. Tillis says.

The toothbrush collection on display includes several with solid silver handles. One of the old dental cabinets has a secret compartment for the practicing dentist to store the gold for fillings.

It’s truly a focused, niche collection. When a television program put together a list of Ohio’s most unusual museums, the Harris home was right up there, along with the Paul A. Johnson Pencil Sharpener Museum in southeast Ohio’s Hocking Hills and the Dittrick Museum of Medical History’s contraception collection in Cleveland.

 

The Missing Lincoln Tooth Key

At one time, the Harris museum had a tooth key, which was said to be used by one of the original students, Wesley Wampler, to extract a tooth from Abraham Lincoln in Illinois in 1856. The current whereabouts of the Lincoln tooth key is unknown.

Some other artifacts, once housed in Bainbridge, were parsed out before the historical society took control of the Harris home, and now reside in the much newer and larger National Museum of Dentistry in Baltimore.

What couldn’t be moved, of course, was the house itself.

1818 Tooth Key: The College of Physicians of Philadelphia
1818 Tooth Key: The College of Physicians of Philadelphia
An infected tooth in the pre-antibiotic era could be fatal. The easiest way to treat a sore or infected tooth was to pull it. Before local anesthetics were available, the operation needed to be quick. This tooth key was one instrument that a dentist or barber-surgeon could use to apply a great deal of force quickly in order to extract a tooth.
Unfortunately, the operation frequently led to unwanted outcomes; as one doctor wrote, use of the key often meant that “the gums are not unfrequently crushed, and the tooth not rarely broken,” and led to “splintering of the jaw, with exfoliation and necrosis, … inflammation, and extensive abscesses.” - (Henry Gilbert, On the Extraction of Teeth, 1849)

“The one unique thing we have that no one else has is the location,” Mr. Tillis says.

Bainbridge, Ohio, and Dr. Harris’s classes are mentioned in the Baltimore museum, which also claims to be a birthplace of dental education. (Remember, Dr. Harris’s brother Chapin went on to found the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery after he was one of the original ten students in Bainbridge.)

The Maryland museum has about 2,000 items on display from its collection of 40,000. It has thousands of toothbrushes and many of them are vintage rather than ancient. Power Rangers, Spider-Man, and Snoopy are among its cartoon character toothbrushes.

Queen Victoria’s dental instruments are on display.

Most notable perhaps is one of George Washington’s dentures, made during his second term as president in the 1790s.

Affiliated with the University of Maryland and the Smithsonian Institution, the museum in Baltimore has a major-museum look and feel. Most visitors spend about two hours in the museum; dentists typically look around for four to five hours, says Patrick Cutter, a research associate.

There’s much to see on the museum’s web page, whereas the tiny Bainbridge museum, which is only open on weekends after being closed for months for renovations, is just getting started on an Internet presence.

The way to experience Bainbridge is still in person, wandering through the village to see the oldest remaining house, built in 1805 (just two years after Ohio became a state), and the one next to it that Mr. Tillis says is thought to have been built in 1810.

Across the country, at the University of the Pacific’s A.W. Ward Museum, it’s just the opposite. The collection that’s affiliated with the Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry in San Francisco is a virtual museum.

Special arrangements can often be made to see items, but the displays, ranging from a history of the toothbrush to business cards of Victorian dentists to the evolution of the dental chair, are organized for the digital world only.

 

For More Information

The University of the Pacific’s virtual museum can be found at: virtualdentalmuseum.org

The national museum in Baltimore is at dental.umaryland.edu/museum

The Mutter Museum is at muttermuseum.org

Limited, and not necessarily current, information about the Bainbridge, Ohio, museum is at: bainbridgedentalmuseum.org The museum is open from noon to 4 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays from April to October. Admission is $5 for ages 12 and up, younger children are admitted free. Phone is 740-634-2228.

Many dental schools operate small museums as well. Almost all offer free admission and extended hours. However, many such museums are small and solely focused on the dental history of that state or even the sponsoring school. Some, however, have extensive websites. Here are a few examples:

Michigan
dent.umich.edu/about-school/sindecuse-museum/sindecuse-museum-dentistry

Nebraska
unmc.edu/dentistry/continuinged/museum/index.html

Nevada
fauchard.org/publications/48-pierre-fauchard-museum#pub_209

Pennsylvania
temple.pastperfectonline.com

South Carolina
musc.libguides.com/waring/about/macaulaymuseum

Author: Contributing writer Jane Schmucker is a veteran journalist who has covered health and business topics. Now freelancing, she reported and edited for more than 22 years at The Blade (Toledo, Ohio). She has also worked on the rewrite desk for USA Today in Arlington, VA.

Also by Jane Schmucker:

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