Grin and Bear It: Toothache Day and Why It Was Best to Avoid the Dentist in the Ancient World

*The following blog post was written by Curatorial Assistant Varsha Jayaraman.

Postcard (1906), Museum of Health Care 996001476

February 9th marks Toothache Day, a day to celebrate… toothaches?  Much like many strangely-named holidays, the origin and reason for this one is unknown.  Some speculate that perhaps this celebrates the feast day of St. Apollonia, the patroness of dentists.  She was seized during a local uprising against Christians in Alexandria and was severely beaten, losing all of her teeth.  The Roman Church remembers her on February 9th. She is commonly invoked by some toothache sufferers because of the pain she endured.  Others believe that Toothache Day may be related to the date that the Hershey’s Candy Corporation was founded, the delicious origin of many-a-toothache.  In any case, Toothache Day instils a reminder to all to see the dentist regularly.  And to count your blessings that you aren’t suffering from a toothache in the Ancient or Medieval Worlds!

Toothaches are the second most common ailment (the first being the common cold).  For most of us, our first instinct upon experiencing tooth pain is to go straight to the dentist so they can apply some anaesthetic and get to work fixing the problem; however, the people of the past did not have such luxuries.  Toothaches, before the age of modern dentistry, were subject to drastic remedies that were painful, uncomfortable and, some might even say, horrific to experience.  It may have been best to have just stayed at home…

A common conception from 1800 BCE to as late as the 18th century in Mesopotamia, India, Egypt, Japan and China was that toothache was caused by “tooth worms.”  The tooth worm was believed to bear a hole through your tooth, hiding beneath the surface.  The pain would commence when it wriggled around and would cease when it rested.  This was a common diagnosis with several supposed remedies.

Remedies for toothaches in history ranged from the simple to the positively bizarre.  Some recommended the fairly straightforward remedy of surrounding the aching tooth with some food or some herbals.  The Aztecs, for example, suggested chewing on hot chilli, while Orthodox Jews found that sour juice could cure a toothache.  Another common remedy was fumigation by means of burning certain herbs to cure the patient.  This was by far one of the lighter remedies.

Other forms of treatment were odder and more drastic.  The Scots believed that placing a caterpillar wrapped (some would even say “cocooned”) in red cloth under the aching tooth would alleviate the pain caused by the “tooth worm.”  In India, one surgeon by the name of Vagbhata (650 CE) advised filling the cavity with wax and burning it with a hot probe.  The Ancient Egyptians believed that pain would cease if you applied a dead mouse to the tooth.  Arguably, that was not even the strangest remedy.  Pliny the Elder, an ancient Roman author, advised the ailing to catch a frog under a full moon, open its mouth and spit into it while saying, “Frog, go, and take my toothache with thee!”  Although pretty wacky, Pliny’s cure did seem to be one of the most painless remedies …though, maybe not for the frog!

Oil of Cloves Pharmacy Bottle (1850-1860), Museum of Healthcare 1980.18.12

An ancient remedy still employed by some traditionalist dentists today is the administration of “oil of cloves.”  By dabbing some cotton in the oil and applying it to the ailing tooth, one can reduce the pain caused by the toothache.

Considering the nature of these remedies, it comes as no surprise that some people attempted to prevent toothaches before they made even the vaguest appearance.  The Medieval English in particular, notorious for their addiction to things supernatural, advised grave-robbing to keep toothaches at bay—a tooth from a corpse, worn as an amulet, was said to ward off toothaches and protect from dental ailments.

With the Industrial Revolution’s new, steady supply and use of sugar, toothaches became even more common amongst the population of the Western world.

It was only during the age of the Scientific Revolution that the cause of toothaches was discovered. The culprits were infection and rot.  As a result, extraction became a popular method of relief.  Often, these were administered with a tooth or dental key.

Toothkey (1830-1870), Museum of Healthcare 1986.6.3

The tooth key from the nineteenth-century pictured here was used to extract teeth (often quite painfully).  The dentist would insert the key horizontally into the mouth, where the “claw” would be hooked over a tooth.  The instrument was then rotated to loosen the tooth and pry it out of the gums.  The primitive forms of this instrument often resulted in tooth breakage, jaw fractures and soft tissue damage.  After the discovery of antibiotics and anaesthetics, this process became much more bearable.

The cause of Toothache Day, despite everything discussed above, still remains a mystery.  Nonetheless, it can act as a reminder to see your dentist regularly and maintain good oral hygiene!  We may not use dead mice or tooth keys to treat toothaches anymore, but they are still a pain.  So remember: floss everyday, kids.


Works Cited

Bell, Sharon A. “Ancient Toothache Remedies.” EZine Articles.

Fanu, James Le. “In sickness and in health: the excruciating history of toothache – Telegraph.” The Telegraph.

Gaulin, Pam. “Feb. 9: Toothache Day, Bagels and Lox Day, War Time 70th Anniversary, Read in the Bathtub Day.” Yahoo! News.

“Toothache Day.” Holiday Insights.

“Toothache Day!” Directory for Holiday Observances & Celebrations.

Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania. “Toothaches–A History of Agony.” Watchtower–BIBLIOTECA Online.

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