We trust our dentists not to stick us with any of the sharp, pointy things they have around, while they trust us not to stick them with a bad check. It’s a good relationship.
Dentistry was practiced 3,000 years before Christ, but most of that time was limited pretty much to extractions.
By the 1300s, most dentistry was performed by barbers and it was not uncommon to have a tooth pulled, get a new hairstyle and have your blood let in a single sitting. Ancient medicine taught that the body was composed of four fluids: blood, phlegm, choler and black bile. Good health depended upon a balance of them and, in an effort to achieve that balance, bloodletting was practiced for several thousand years without the slightest hint that it was ever effective.
George Washington woke up late the morning of Dec. 13, 1799 with a bad cold that continued to worsen. The standard treatment for, well, everything, was bloodletting. So, over the next 16 hours, physicians relieved him of six pints of blood, expecting that would surely bounce him back into the pink of condition, but no, alas, he died.
Barbers also did a booming business in teeth whitening. The customary procedure was to scrape up the surface of the tooth with metal files and dab them with strong solutions of nitric acid. This not only turned teeth brilliantly white but also destroyed the enamel, causing the teeth to quickly decay. Dental decay and its accompanying pain had a profound impact on the medieval society and economy.
Elizabeth I, queen of both England and Ireland, loved her sweets and suffered from numerous cavities and infections. Through years of misery, she oversaw legislation that affected the lives of millions of her subjects. Finally, in 1578, when she could no longer stand the agony, she pulled up her queen britches and made the Bishop of London have one of his own healthy teeth extracted in front of her, so she could witness that the pain was not unbearable.
Fun was invented shortly after 1793 when Joseph Priestley discovered nitrous oxide. He was looking for a preserving agent but put it on the shelf when it didn’t work. His efforts were picked up by another British scientist, Humphrey Davy, who saw no harm bringing its recreational use to the upper crust of English society.
Nitrous produces a state of euphoria and a sense that the most mundane is hilarious, hence the nickname “laughing gas.” Davy began hosting “laughing parties” where guests would inhale nitrous and stumble around in a state of euphoria.
Ether, another volatile intoxicant, was named after the Greek god who supplied a special rarified air to the other gods. Its recreational use is first mentioned in the works of a chemist named Ray Lullius in 1275. Victorians used it alongside nitrous in parties called “ether frolics”. Ether has the disadvantage of being wickedly flammable and it turns explosive when stored for long periods.
The phrase “It’s a gas!” was coined about this time to describe those parties. Poet Robert Southey compared nitrous to the “air in heaven.” Notable poets, artists and captains of industry were frequently seen at these parties.
The gas traveled across England in carnivals and medicine shows where the public paid to inhale Davy’s laughing gas. It wasn’t until 40 years later that someone noticed that people under the influence of both gasses were seemingly unconcerned with pain and the field of medicine soon incorporated both of them into their procedures.
So, the next time someone tells you the party’s “gonna be a gas!” you’ll know right off what to expect.