The Bard: 23 things classic literature teaches us about dentistry

May 24, 2016
I started wondering what advice dental practitioners can derive from classic literature. What can the wordsmiths of yesteryear tell us about dentistry in 2016?

A conversation with a dental hygienist about another dental hygienist confused me the other day. The dental hygienist was merely trying to introduce me to a dental hygiene colleague whom I did not know. She said her friend had left dental hygiene to study English literature in a scholarly way, even earning a doctorate as a result of her study of the classics.

“So, she’s not a dental hygienist?” I asked.

“No,” she replied, “she is now a professor of biology at another college.”

“So, she’s not a dental hygienist?” I asked again.

After that conversation about the former hygienist who switched from using skillful hands in the operatory to turning the pages of books, I started wondering what advice dental practitioners can derive from classic literature. What can the wordsmiths of yesteryear tell us about dentistry in 2016?

Some of the literary references below come from a time when apparently a majority of dental appointments were truly horrific experiences. Fortunately, no one alive remembers those days, unless it’s the idiots in a viral video called “Last month’s stupidest pranks: The idiot side of the gene pool continues to dwindle.” Some folks still like to be permanently recorded in an extreme position that guarantees a tooth will be forcefully popped out. Otherwise, the good side of the gene pool enjoys a very consistent dosage of painless dentistry that relies on prevention.

We really should start with Shakespeare.

Social Media

“Much Ado About Nothing” is one of the Bard’s most popular comedies, believed to have been written in the late 1500s. In the second act, the lead male character, Benedick, would rather go to Asia for a toothpick than have a conversation with the lead female character, Beatrice. This is all said in an open court, much like Facebook. So, be careful of what you say on social media.

Will your grace command me any service to the world’s end? I will go on the slightest errand now to the Antipodes that you can devise to send me on; I will fetch you a tooth-picker now from the furthest inch of Asia, bring you the length of Prester John’s foot, fetch you a hair off the great Cham’s beard, do you any embassage to the Pigmies, rather than hold three words’ conference with this harpy. You have no employment for me?

Patient Comfort

Toward the end of his life, Mark Twain published a series of essays titled “Christian Science” that were critical of the religious approach to health care that essentially relies on prayer. The book was based on a magazine article where he humorously described falling off a cliff. A Christian scientist did not reply to his plea for treatment. In confusion, he asked if the caregiver understood what happened during the fall off a cliff before concluding, “That accounts for it; she is thinking of the boulders. Why didn’t you tell her I got hurt too?” In another essay in the book, he describes a follower’s resistance to comfort during dental care.

She would not allow the dentist to use cocaine, but sat there and let him punch and drill and split and crush the tooth, and tear and slash its ulcerations, and pull out the nerve, and dig out fragments of bone; and she wouldn’t once confess that it hurt. And to this day she thinks it didn’t, and I have not a doubt that she is nine-tenths right, and that her Christian-Science faith did her better service than she could have gotten out of cocaine.


“The Importance of Being Earnest” was Oscar Wilde’s last play before being imprisoned and exiled for homosexuality. He wrote the comedy in 1884, poking fun at Victorian England. In the line below, which is uttered by the play’s lead actor in the first act, it’s worth sneaking off to read what CliffsNotes, the bane of all English literature teachers, says about the line: “False teeth, dental impressions to mold them, and social impressions are all wrapped up in this pun.”

My dear Algy, you talk exactly as if you were a dentist. It is very vulgar to talk like a dentist when one isn’t a dentist. It produces a false impression.


Before we spend too much time chasing the words of literary ghosts, we should visit with Joshua Ferris, the American author who published “To Rise Again at a Decent Hour” in 2014. The novel won the Dylan Thomas Prize for the year, and we should remember from the passage below that we need to be careful about who we will treat or not treat.

Dr. De Soto is a mouse dentist who will fix the mouth of any animal who doesn’t eat mice. It says so right on the sign hanging outside his shop: Cats & other dangerous animals not accepted for treatment.

Dental Advertising

The author of “Little Women,” Louisa May Alcott, certainly established a descriptive image of dental advertising in the late 1860s with the passage below. The trials of young women growing up in America during the mid-1850s took a commercial break.

There was a dentist’s sign, among others, which adorned the entrance, and after staring a moment at the pair of artificial jaws which slowly opened and shut to draw attention to a fine set of teeth, the young gentleman put on his coat, took his hat, and went down to post himself in the opposite doorway, saying with a smile and a shiver, “It’s like her to come alone, but if she has a bad time she’ll need someone to help her home.”


Rex Ellingwood Beach spent time in Alaska as a young man, prospecting for gold during the Klondike Gold Rush. His second novel, “The Spoilers,” brought him the most fame in 1906, when he exposed corruption in the mining industry. He also wrote the short story, “The Moon, the Maid, and the Winged Shoes,” with the Pacific Northwest again serving as the setting.

“What you doin’ in all them good clothes?” I inquired.
“I’m a D.D.S.”
“Do tell! All I ever took was the first three degrees. Gimme the grip and the password and I’ll believe you.”
“That ain’t a Masonic symbol,” said he. “I’m a dentist—a bony fido dentist, with forceps and a little furnace and a gas-bag and a waitin’-rooms.” He swelled up and bit a hang-nail off of his cigar.
“Yep! A regular toothwright.”
Naturally I was surprised, not to say awed. “Have you got much of a practice?” I made bold to ask.
“Um-m—It ain’t what it ought to be, still I can’t complain. It takes time to work into a fashionable clienteel. All I get a whack at now is Injuns, but I’m gradually beginnin’ to close in on the white teeth.”


The “toothwright” above was a shining example of a dentist compared to Frank Norris’s “McTeague.” Norris gravitated toward themes focusing on corporate greed in most of his fiction. But the lead character of “McTeague,” which was published in 1899, is a dentist. The novel is about the daily struggles facing McTeague and his wife, Trina.

McTeague shut the door behind him with his heel and handed her the letter. Trina read it through. Then suddenly her small hand gripped tightly upon the sponge, so that the water started from it and dripped in a little pattering deluge upon the bricks.
The letter—or rather printed notice—informed McTeague that he had never received a diploma from a dental college, and that in consequence he was forbidden to practice his profession any longer. A legal extract bearing upon the case was attached in small type.
“Why, what’s all this?” said Trina, calmly, without thought as yet.
“I don’ know, I don’ know,” answered her husband.

“Say, Mac,” interrupted Trina, looking up from the notice, “DIDN’T you ever go to a dental college?”
“Huh? What? What?” exclaimed McTeague.
“How did you learn to be a dentist? Did you go to a college?”
“I went along with a fellow who came to the mine once. My mother sent me. We used to go from one camp to another. I sharpened his excavators for him, and put up his notices in the towns—stuck them up in the post-offices and on the doors of the Odd Fellows’ halls. He had a wagon.”
“But didn’t you never go to a college?”
“Huh? What? College? No, I never went. I learned from the fellow.”

“Why, I’ve been practicing ten years. More—nearly twelve.”
“But it’s the law.”
“What’s the law?”
“That you can’t practice, or call yourself doctor, unless you’ve got a diploma.”
“What’s that—a diploma?”

Cosmetic Dentistry

Willa Cather enjoyed financial and critical success with “O’Pioneers,” “The Song of the Lark,” and “My Antonia,” and earned a Pulitzer for 1922’s “One of Ours.” She spent her childhood in Nebraska. Many of her books illustrated the pioneer’s life on the Great Plains. The passage below is from “The Diamond Mine,” a short story first published in 1916.

His teeth were white, very irregular and interesting. The corrective methods of modern dentistry would have taken away half his good looks. His mouth would have been much less attractive for any re-arranging of those long, narrow, over-crowded teeth. Along with his frown and his way of thrusting out his lip, they contributed, somehow, to the engaging impetuousness of his conversation.

Class VI Caries

Aldous Huxley, the author of “Brave New World,” often projected futuristic themes with his writing. But he offered a very present description of dental pain in “Nuns at Luncheon,” a short story published in 1921.

She used to kneel for hours, at night, in the cold; she ate too little, and when her teeth ached, which they often did—for she had a set, the doctor told me, which had given trouble from the very first—she would not go and see the dentist, but lay awake at night, savouring to the full her excruciations, and feeling triumphantly that they must, in some strange way, be pleasing to the Mysterious Powers. She went on like that for two or three years, till she was poisoned through and through.

Appointment Scheduling

Stephen Leacock was a Canadian writer who was much appreciated for his wit. The Canadian Encyclopedia described him as “the English-speaking world’s best-known humorist 1915-25.” One quote often attributed to him is, “I detest life-insurance agents: they always argue that I shall some day die, which is not so.” He also thought making dental appointments was a humorous event, as he described in “Beyond the Beyond,” a collection of essays published in 1913.

“No, not now, I can’t stay now,” I said, “I have an appointment, a whole lot of appointments, urgent ones, the most urgent I ever had.” I was unfastening my shroud as I spoke.
“Well, then, tomorrow,” said the dentist.
“No,” I said, “tomorrow is Saturday. And Saturday is a day when I simply can’t take gas. If I take gas, even the least bit of gas on a Saturday, I find it’s misunderstood…”
“Monday then.”
“Monday, I’m afraid, won’t do. It’s a bad day for me—worse than I can explain.”
“Tuesday?” said the dentist.
“Not Tuesday,” I answered. “Tuesday is the worst day of all. On Tuesday my church society meets, and I must go to it.”
I hadn’t been near it, in reality, for three years, but suddenly I felt a longing to attend it.
“On Wednesday,” I went on, speaking hurriedly and wildly, “I have another appointment, a swimming club, and on Thursday two appointments, a choral society and a funeral. On Friday I have another funeral. Saturday is market day. Sunday is washing day. Monday is drying day…”
“Hold on,” said the dentist, speaking very firmly. “You come tomorrow morning: I’ll write the engagement for ten o’clock.”
I think it must have been hypnotism.
Before I knew it, I had said “Yes.”

Patient Reception

Christopher Morley was a New York journalist known for his compilation of essays throughout the 1920s and 1930s. When he died in 1951, his last message was published in New York City newspapers: “Read, every day, something no one else is reading. Think, every day, something no one else is thinking. Do, every day, something no one else would be silly enough to do…” He certainly thought dental offices could improve on greeting patients in an essay published in “Mince Pie.”

Also, there are many ways of opening doors. There is the cheery push of elbow with which the waiter shoves open the kitchen door when he bears in your tray of supper… There is the sympathetic and awful silence of the dentist’s maid who opens the door into the operating room and, without speaking, implies that the doctor is ready for you. There is the brisk cataclysmic opening of a door when the nurse comes in, very early in the morning: “It’s a boy!”

Patient Financing

Kathleen Thompson Norris wrote 93 novels during her life. She was often pegged for the “hack work” associated with romance novelists. Her books, though, were very popular best sellers that very seriously discussed marriage and motherhood. The quote, “Changing husbands is only changing troubles,” is attributed to her. A passage from one of her novels, “Undertow,” reminds us of how patients sometimes have to prioritize dental care.

“Oh, Bert, we used to clear everything off on the first of the month, and then celebrate, don’t you remember?”
He jerked his head impatiently. “What’s the use of harking back to that? That was years ago, and things are different now. We’ll pull out of it, I’m not worried. Only, where we can, I think we ought to cut down.”
“Dentist…” Nancy said musingly. She had come over to stand beside him, and now glanced at one of the topmost bills. “You have to have a dentist,” she argued.

Emergency Room Dental Care

At the beginning of the 20th Century, Arthur Quiller-Couch gained much notoriety for his anthology of English poetry, “The Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1900.” He did write novels too, and his 1906 book, “The Mayor of Troy,” contained the amusing reference to a hospital visit for dental care.

In fact, no visitor troubled him until one o’clock, when, in the lull between the starts of the sailing and the rowing races, and while the Regatta Committee was dining ashore to the strains of a brass band, a farm labourer in his Sunday best, crowned with a sugar-loaf hat, entered, flung himself into a chair, and demanded to have a tooth extracted.
“You needn’ mind which,” he added encouragingly; “they all aches at times. Only don’t let it be more than one, for I can’t afford it. I been countin’ up how to lay out my money, an’ I got sixpence over; an’ it can’t be in beer, because I promised the missus.”
The Major assured him that the extraction of a tooth or teeth did not fall within the sphere of the hospital’s provision.

Forensic Dentistry

Arthur B. Reeve wrote mysteries, writing quite a few whodunits between 1913 and 1920. An American who graduated from Princeton, he created a character named Craig Kennedy that appeared as the primary sleuth in his fiction. In 1914’s “The Dream Doctor,” Kennedy uses forensic dentistry to derive clues.

We found Kennedy heating a large mass of some composition such as dentists use in taking impressions of the teeth.
“I shall be ready in a moment,” he excused himself, still bending over his Bunsen flame. “By the way, Mr. Phelps, if you will permit me.”
He had detached a wad of the softened material. Phelps, taken by surprise, allowed him to make an impression of his teeth, almost before he realised what Kennedy was doing. The precedent set, so to speak, Kennedy approached Doctor Forden. He demurred, but finally consented. Mrs. Phelps followed, then the nurse, and even Shaughnessy.
With a quick glance at each impression, Kennedy laid them aside to harden.

Dental Phobias

Fear of dentistry is frequently expressed in literature, but we thought British humorist P.G. Wodehouse should be quoted here. A character named Jeeves featured strongly in the author’s whimsical farces. “Right Ho, Jeeves” contains this description of delaying the inevitable within a dental office.

I remember once detaining a dentist with the drill at one of my lower bicuspids and holding him up for nearly ten minutes with a story about a Scotchman, an Irishman, and a Jew. Purely automatic. The more he tried to jab, the more I said “Hoots, mon,” “Begorrah,” and “Oy, oy.” When one loses one’s nerve, one simply babbles.

Sports Injuries

Boys like sports. Boys like to read about sports. So Ralph Henry Barbour found his niche writing sports fiction for American youths from 1899 through the 1930s. Sports meets tooth. Athletes meet dentist. The passage below came from 1902’s “Behind the Line: A Story of College Life and Football.”

“Me too,” growled Paul. “And half a dozen of my front teeth are aching from trying to bite holes in the ground; I think they’re all loose. If they come out, I’ll send the dentist’s bill to the management.”

Front Office Staff

An early American western writer was B. M. Bower, who lived from 1871 to 1940. Bertha Muzzy Bower was a woman. She grew up in Montana, and briefly taught school in a log structure. She knew her cowboys, though, and her characters in many of her books and short stories appeared in the setting of the Flying U Ranch. The book “Cabin Fever,” published in 1918, reveals that maybe not much has changed for those hardworking front office staff members.

The place did not require much concentration—a dentist’s office, where her chief duties consisted of opening the daily budget of circulars, sending out monthly bills, and telling pained-looking callers that the doctor was out just then. Her salary just about paid her board, with a dollar or two left over for headache tablets and a vaudeville show now and then. She did not need much spending money, for her evenings were spent mostly in crying over certain small garments and a canton-flannel dog called “Wooh-wooh.”
For three months she stayed, too apathetic to seek a better position. Then the dentist’s creditors became suddenly impatient, and the dentist could not pay his office rent, much less his office girl.

Patient Referrals

Some provocative details about a dalliance between an older woman and a younger man in “Three Weeks” led to a 1907 scandal that threatened to derail the writing career of Elinor Glyn. The romance novelist preferred to create strong women characters. Later in her career, she wrote the screenplay that led to the hit, “It Girl.” “The Letters of Her Mother to Elizabeth” was Glyn’s first book in 1901, which includes the below reference for a fresh set of dentures.

She asked me if I could recommend a dentist in Taunton; it seems that when she goes to bed she always puts her false teeth in a glass of water, and one of the maids threw them away in the slops by mistake. Fortunately, she keeps two sets, upper and lower, but the spare plate was made in a great hurry and bruises her gums. I told her Fellowes in Taunton advertised to make a set while you wait, but I didn’t know how long he made you wait, and she is going to him today.

Patient Financing

The box office champion of the early 1930s was Shirley Temple. One of the movies she appeared in during her reign over the silver screen was “The Little Colonel,” and this is the film where she performed her famous staircase dance with Bill Robinson. “The Little Colonel” was based on a series of children’s books of the same name, all written by Annie Fellows Johnston. Dental treatment was expensive back then too, often requiring unique payments, as Johnston illustrates below.

Wig had set up a dentist’s establishment on the steps of the stile, his stock in trade being a pocket-knife and a hat full of raw turnips. Nothing could have been friendlier than the way he greeted Mary and Patty, insisting that they each needed a set of false teeth. Half a dozen of his friends had already been fitted out, and stood around, grinning, in order to show the big white turnip teeth he had fitted over the set provided by Nature. As the teeth were cut in irregular shapes, wide square-tipped ones alternating with long pointed fangs, and the upper lip had to be drawn tightly to hold them in place, the effect was so comical that they could hardly hold the new sets in position for laughing at each other.
In payment for his work, Wig accepted almost anything that his customers had to offer: marbles, when he could get them, pencils, apples, fish-hooks, even a roll of tin-foil, saved from many chewing-gum packages, which was all one girl had to trade.

Continuing Education

Jack London, the author of “The Call of the Wild” and “White Fang,” dedicated his writing to describing how “life symbolized the power of will,” according to He wrote three autobiographical memoirs during his career, and the second one, “The Cruise of the Snark,” was published in 1911. We’re not sure if the CE quiz was included in the index.

I did not know anything about dentistry, but a friend fitted me out with forceps and similar weapons, and in Honolulu I picked up a book upon teeth. Also, in that sub-tropical city I managed to get hold of a skull, from which I extracted the teeth swiftly and painlessly. Thus equipped, I was ready, though not exactly eager, to tackle any tooth that get in my way.

Veterinary dentistry

Victor Appleton is a pen name for Howard Garis. In Appleton’s world, the animals engaged in meaningful conversations. Garis wrote a series of children’s books called the Bed Time series, and “Lulu, Alice, and Jimmie Wibble-Wobble” was written within this series. One key feature in the Bed Time series was that each book had 31 stories, one for each day of the month. Oral hygiene is important to the animals too, at least for a day.

Once upon a time it was raining very hard one morning. It was just when Lulu and Alice and Jimmie Wibble-Wobble were looking out of the window of the duck pen, getting ready for school.
“Jimmie, is your hair combed?” asked his mamma.
“No, ma’am,” he answered; “but I’m just going to comb it.”
“And did you brush your teeth?”
“No, mamma, but I’m just going—”
“Now, now, Jimmie, that’s what you always say. Hurry to the bathroom and clean your teeth at once, or else there’ll be a dentist coming to the school looking into your mouth and goodness knows what will happen then. Hurry, now, or you’ll be late.”
Jimmie cleaned his teeth quickly, and ran on to school so he wouldn’t be late and get a bad mark. What’s that? You didn’t know ducks had teeth? Well, the next time you get a chance, when a duck opens his mouth real wide, you look in, and maybe you’ll see them. They’re very small, I know, but that doesn’t count.

Dental office design

George Bernard Shaw, the Irish playwright who introduced us to Eliza Doolittle in “Pygmalion,” also wrote “You Never Can Tell” in 1897. The lead character is Dr. Valentine, and the first act detailed below talks about the good doctor’s office design. You feel right at home, eh?

In a dentist’s operating room on a fine August morning in 1896. … The operating chair, with a gas pump and cylinder beside it, is half way between the centre of the room and one of the corners. If you look into the room through the window which lights it, you will see the fireplace in the middle of the wall opposite you, with the door beside it to your left; an M.R.C.S. diploma in a frame hung on the chimneypiece; an easy chair covered in black leather on the hearth; a neat stool and bench, with vice, tools, and a mortar and pestle in the corner to the right. Near this bench stands a slender machine like a whip provided with a stand, a pedal, and an exaggerated winch. Recognizing this as a dental drill, you shudder and look away to your left, where you can see another window, underneath which stands a writing table, with a blotter and a diary on it, and a chair. … The operating chair is under your nose, facing you, with the cabinet of instruments handy to it on your left. You observe that the professional furniture and apparatus are new, and that the wall paper, designed, with the taste of an undertaker.

Continuing Education

As America’s wildernesses began to disappear, Stewart Edward White found his niche as a writer by interviewing people who still remembered unexplored sections of the country. His string of adventure and travel novels were broken up by “The Rules of the Game” in 1910. The book exposed corruption within a forestry agency in California. As far as we can tell via Google searches, even the drug Oxodyne was fictional. But the passage below offers a vision of what CE would be like with “fascinating damsels.”

Nor was he more than slightly astounded when the back drop rose to show the stage set glitteringly with nickel-mounted dentist chairs and their appurtenances, with shining glass, white linen, and with a chorus of fascinating damsels dressed as trained nurses and standing rigidly at attention. Then entered Painless himself, in snowy shirt-sleeves and serious professional preoccupation. Volunteers came up two by two. Painless explained obscurely the scientific principles on which the marvelous Oxodyne worked—by severing temporarily but entirely all communication between the nerves and the brain. Then much business with a very glittering syringe.
“My lord,” chuckled Baker, “if he fills that thing up, it’ll drown her!”
In an impressive silence Painless flourished the forceps, planted himself square in front of his patient, heaved a moment, and triumphantly held up in full view an undoubted tooth. The trained nurses offered rinses. After a moment the patient, a roughly dressed country woman, arose to her feet. She was smiling broadly, and said something, which the audience could not hear. Painless smiled indulgently.
“Speak up so they can all hear you,” he encouraged her.
“Never hurt a bit,” the woman stammered.
Three more operations were conducted as expeditiously and as successfully. The audience was evidently impressed.

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About the Author

Mark Hartley

Mark Hartley is the editor of RDH magazine and collaborates with Kristine Hodsdon on many of the articles for RDH eVillage, which also appear on