Circulating Now welcomes guest blogger Jen Woronow. Her research explores social science with an emphasis on promoting trans-disciplinary discussion. Today she joins us with a discussion of the intersection of dentistry and poetry.
Dentistry and poetry are two things one wouldn’t ordinarily associate with one another. But to Dr. Solyman Brown, author of Dentologia and one of America’s preeminent dentists, there is no more perfect pairing of subject and form. Dentologia is a staggering five canto, 49 stanza poem written in 1833 explaining the diseases and treatment of the teeth. The only other verses with this much enthusiasm for dentistry are Dental Hygeia, a Poem on the Health and Preservation of the Teeth written in 1838 by none other than Brown himself. Championed as “The Poet Laureate of Dentistry,” Brown was as much of a virtuoso with the pen as he was with the medical pick.
In order to understand Brown’s passions as a poet, one must first understand him as a dentist at a time when the profession was still undeveloped. A visionary in his field, Brown modernized dentistry before there was formal education, literature, or professional organizations. Beginning his career by improving porcelain dentures, Brown went on to establish a dental practice in his hometown of New York City in 1832. From there, he and 15 other dentists organized the Society of Dental Surgeons of the City and State of New York, the first of its kind, on December 3, 1834. Brown’s ideal position to bring the leading figures in his field together led to other successes. He was named recording secretary in the Society’s first year and later elected president in 1839. In that same year, Brown facilitated a planning meeting in his home for what became the earliest dental periodical in the world, the American Journal of Dental Science. Brown served as an editor for two consecutive years and authored many publications. He also had direct involvement in the foundation of the foremost dental school, the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery, by urging his peers in the Society to build an institution of higher education. Although Brown couldn’t teach due to his distance from Baltimore, he shaped the curriculum and goals of the college.
In the 1830’s, dentistry was mostly limited to administering pain relief and tooth extractions, and a variety of practitioners (some more qualified than others) performed the operations. Preventative care hardly existed. Things we take for granted today such as teeth cleanings, x-rays, and routine exams were not available. The toothbrush was present during this time along with pastes and powders. Unfortunately, most people did not brush their teeth as a regular part of oral health. They were unaware of the benefits since there was little understanding of what strengthened tooth enamel or prevented cavities and periodontal disease. In 1839, Charles Goodyear discovered vulcanized rubber leading to more affordable denture bases—a necessity considering the number of tooth extractions. By late 1844, Horace Wells demonstrated nitrous oxide as an anesthetic. Thomas Morton discovered the applicability of ether as an anesthetic for oral surgery two years later.
Scott Swank, a dentist, historian, and curator of the National Museum of Dentistry explains that the first dental practices (like most medical practices) were private, single-person offices. Without official schools, dentists typically received hands-on training from more experienced mentors. Although some dentists were amenable to providing training, the newness of the field sometimes resulted in the close guarding of techniques and texts. It’s no wonder Brown portrays dentistry in such a lofty and noble light. It’s possible he saw himself as part of the dawn of an enlightened age of medicine. For Brown, the dentist occupies the role of divine healer and sage teacher. Like some mythic figure from a Greek legend, the dentist is able to cast sleep upon his patient and oversee the safeguarding of valuable knowledge.
The theme of being mystically larger than life appears in several of Brown’s stylistic choices which are characteristic of the period. Although Dentologia is unique for its subject, Brown adhered to the traditions of classical poetry. Brown was both a man of innovation and also one to value a modicum of convention when it came to literature. Dentologia is an example of an epic poem, both due to its impressive length and lyrical prose. Epic poems are known for telling the story of a heroic journey or feat. This style of poetry depicts drama surrounding superhuman triumphs. Such grandeur calls upon the use of allegory where deities serve as metaphors for religious, historical, and moral meaning. Brown’s pious beginnings as a Christian minister are abundantly apparent in his emphasis on morals. He preaches the gospel of dentistry and each tale of health woes is part of his sermon.
No goddess born in blue-eyed Juno’s reign,
Or fair-haired sister of Apollo’s train—
No coy or quivered Driad of the woods,
Or laughing Naiad of the dashing floods—
Do I invoke:—ye fabled forms—retire!
Dentologia can also be considered a morality play, a style of poetry popular in Europe during the 15th and 16th century. Like epic poems, morality plays convey drama and feature characters who personify virtuous qualities. According to Brown’s contemporary Malvin E. Ring, early dentistry was unregulated “chaos” often committed by unethical “quacks” and “charlatans.” In context, it’s apparent why Brown places the dentist on such a valiant pedestal. He had firsthand knowledge of how inexperience and ego could harm a patient. Brown uses the morality play style as an opportunity to make Dentologia didactically instructional. As a practitioner in an emerging field of medicine, Brown wanted to share his technical knowledge. All these deliberate stylistic choices provide the reader with an idea of not only how Brown regarded dentistry but also how he saw himself as a master of his craft.
Whene’er, along the ivory disks, are seen,
The filthy footsteps of the dark gangrene;
When caries comes, with stealthy pace to throw
Corrosive ink spots on those banks of snow—
Brook no delay, ye trembling, suffering fair,
But fly to refuge to the dentist’s care.
His practiced hand, obedient to his will,
Employs the slender file with nicest skill;
Just sweeps the germin of disease away,
And stops the fearful progress of decay.
Hailed a literary masterpiece by critics of its day, Dentologia remains an unmatched homage to dentistry. Surely a work of such impressive magnitude should not be relegated to a mere curiosity. Dentologia is as much a celebration of human knowledge as it is a cautionary tale about neglecting dental health. Brown lived during a time when dentistry was new and largely unrecognized as essential to overall health. Today we know better. Despite over two centuries of advancements in the field, people sometimes jokingly call teeth “luxury bones.” It’s a reference to how dental care is often viewed as largely cosmetic but also how it can be cost prohibitive rendering it inaccessible.
The fancied angel vanished into air,
And left unfortunate Urilla there:
For when her parted lips disclosed to view,
Those ruined arches, veiled in ebon hue,
Where love had thought to feast the ravished sight
On orient gems reflecting snowy light,
Hope, disappointed, silently retired,
Disgust triumphant came, and love expired!
Even insured Americans do not usually receive dental care as part of their coverage and must pay extra. The uninsured often go without dental care until they eventually suffer an emergency, much like the tragedies in Brown’s poem. Thus, Brown’s exhortations are still relevant; perhaps we should acknowledge these verses as more than fanciful prose and elevate dentistry to where it is accessible for everyone.
Jen Woronow is a trained artist, International Security Studies scholar, and creator of The Jaunty Crow, an open access, digital humanities and social science blog promoting trans-disciplinary discussion. Jen has worked as a Program Analyst in NHLBI’s Division of Extramural Research Activities since 2016.