Barber-surgeons and toothdrawers

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Last updated: 10/04/2013
 


Pelicans, 16th to 18th centuriesFor most people, their main experience of 'dentistry' must have been having a rotten tooth removed: toothbrushes as we know th did not exist and even Elizabeth I, with her use of a toothpick and a cloth, still had bad teeth. Extractions were undertaken by a variety of people. From 1215 the clergy were banned from shedding blood; before this they may have extracted teeth as part of their healing duties. The blacksmith, wigmaker, jeweller and apothecary all extracted teeth as a sideline to their main occupations. In 1462 the first charter of the Barbers' Company specifically mentioned 'drawing teeth' and when they merged with the surgeons in 1540, both trades carried out extractions. The poet John Gay (1685-1732) described this:


 


'A barber-surgeon, Dutch, 17th centuryHis pole with pewter basons hung
Black rotten teeth in order strung,
Rang’d cups, that in the window stood,
Lin’d with red rags to look like blood,
Did well his threefold trade explain,
Who shav’d, drew teeth and breath’d a vein.'


 


Hob and stage doctor, c.1812-1817Other people in need of a tooth extraction had to wait for the visit of a specialist toothdrawer. The earliest reference to a toothdrawer is to Peter of London in 1320. Eighty years later, Henry IV is recorded as appointing Matthew Flint as his toothdrawer, at 6d per day for life. Many toothdrawers travelled the country extracting teeth at marketplaces and fairs. They were often dressed as jesters with distinctive hats and wearing strings of teeth, and announced their presence with loud music. We should not imagine that all of these people were men as there are references to women toothdrawers and barber-surgeons.