Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

The tooth pullers

Gerrit Van Honthorst, 1628,
Louvre, Paris.
Jan Victors, ca. 1650
M.d. Bildenden Kunst, Leipzig.
Jan Steen, ca. 1650 check,
Mauritshuis, The Hague. 
Gerrit Dou, 1630-35,
Louvre, Paris.

Having a tooth pulled in the days before the advent of modern anesthesia and dental techniques could turn out to be a pretty ghastly experience. There was a time when it was done by barbers, by itinerant tooth drawers, or even by blacksmiths. In the village, teeth were often extracted in full view of the public, and rather like beheadings or drawing and quartering the process served as a relief from ennui and a source of entertainment and excitement.

There were frequent complications, considering the lack of skill of the operators. Besides the pain and the loss of blood, it could happen that the crown would break off and leave the root behind. Sepsis could ensue, or the wrong tooth would be pulled. There were many charlatans in the field, some advertising their competency and attracting clients by displaying to the public the bloody tooth they had just extracted or in some instances was handed to them by an accomplice planted in the audience. Some tooth pullers would proudly proclaim their record, how many teeth they had removed, and they would even string them up and wear them as necklaces.

Often the public recognized their incompetence but had no other options. By the seventeenth century, especially in the Netherlands, as artists began to paint scenes from everyday life rather than annunciations and crucifixions, tooth extractions became a favorite subject for caricaturists, but also for serious artists in the Netherlands and also in Italy.

Here we show seven such pieces of art:

  1. Gerrit Van Honthorst, 1628 , Louvre, Paris.
  2. Jan Victors, ca. 1650 M.d.Bildenden Kunst, Leipzig.
  3. Jan Steen, ca.1650 check , Mauritshuis, The Hague.
  4. Gerrit Dou, 1630-35, Louvre, Paris.
  5. Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio,  1609, Pitti Palace, Florence.
  6. Pietro Longhi, 1746, Brera, Milan.
  7. Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, 1754, Louvre, Paris.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1609,
Pitti Palace, Florence.
Pietro Longhi, 1746,
Brera, Milan.
Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, 1754,
Louvre, Paris.

GEORGE DUNEA, MD, Editor-in-Chief

Summer 2018



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