By Alyssa Picard ~
Originally published in Hidden Treasure: The National Library of Medicine, 2011.
We don’t know for sure, but it seems likely that the man who made them was the Hungarian artist Otto Elkan, who was born in Budapest in 1884 and immigrated to France in December 1935. In 1943 Elkan (recorded as “Catholique—r. juive”) was detained in a Nazi war camp in Chateau Tombebouc.
There are two series. One features pen-and-ink, black silhouetted figures and scenes, with patches of color and dialogue. The other, on textured paper, features watercolored drawings—and memorializes an American GI and a dental chair with all the attributes of a Weber Model D (patented in the United States in 1931 and widely distributed abroad). It was undoubtedly drawn sometime shortly after the Allied liberation of Paris.
Elkan’s work documents not only the international spread of American dental technology in this period, but also a transatlantic cultural preoccupation with access to good professional dental care, particularly in wartime. In the late nineteenth century, people in need of a dentist faced a marketplace of practitioners with diverse levels of educational attainment, professional certification, technological sophistication, and practical competence. The early twentieth century brought a dramatic increase in standards of dental education and professional practice: luminaries within the field strove to endow dentistry with the scientific authority and social and economic status of medicine.
During World War II—when nearly all of Europe’s professionally trained dentists had entered military service, been forced to flee, or been put in concentration camps—access to good dental care was severely restricted. At the same time dentists’ increasing success in persuading the public of the importance of good dental care raised the demand for their services. And potential patients felt this lack quite keenly.
One of Elkan’s scenes hints at the shortage of dentists by portraying the self-care attempt of a patient who fastens his aching tooth to a railroad car in an effort to accomplish extraction.
Elkan’s substitution of cats and dogs for dentists and patients is of a piece with a long antic tradition in which animals stand in for human beings. But it is also part of a larger genre of dental slapstick fixated on the notion that the individual holding the forceps might not be a trained professional dentist—and that a hapless patient might not be able to discern the difference.
In the United States the same concerns were reflected in a 1943 short featuring the Three Stooges in which Larry, Moe, and Curly—window washers who accidentally slop soapsuds into the open window of a dentist’s office, causing the proprietor to storm off—assume the dentist’s role and extract a patient’s tooth. In a related 1951 episode, The Tooth Will Out, the three—dressed in Victorian-era waistcoats as if to historicize the persistence of the problem of dentists’ incompetence—are fired from their jobs and pay $500 to a huckster to become dentists instead.
As in Elkan’s cartoons, hilarity ensues.
Alyssa Picard is the author of Making the American Mouth: Dentists and Public Health in the Twentieth Century. She directs contract campaigns and guides the formation of new non-tenuretrack faculty unions for the American Federation of Teachers’ Michigan affiliate. Her next book will be a history of postwar labor, political, and popular-culture constructions of middle-class identity in the United States.