Early Dentistry

The first mention of dentistry in Western Australia, albeit in a rather rough-hewn form, goes back three hundred years, and comes from Dampier’s account of his visit: "The two foreteeth of their upper jaw are wanting in all of them, men and women, old and young; whether they draw them out, I know not," he wrote in 1688 about Aboriginal people.

With the establishment of the Swan River Colony in 1829, Western dentistry of almost as rudimentary a nature came with it. Early surgeons usually carried some dental instruments for extractions, such as can be seen at our museum. The rather horrifying tooth-key; punches to bare the gum from round the teeth; levers to loosen them and the usual array of forceps and pincers.

Few doctors really enjoy extracting teeth, and in more remote parts of the Colony few, indeed, were available, so amateur tooth-drawers were often called upon to bring relief to desperate sufferers. Blacksmiths became almost traditional practitioners of exodontia. Abraham James and William Wood of the Toodyay district are among the first recorded "fang farriers'' of Western Australia. Clergymen, too, often had some missionary medical training and occasionally performed elementary dentistry.

The journals of Archdeacon Wollaston, dating from the 1840s, are rich in dental lore, and include one of the first mentions of false teeth, when one of his subordinate clerics tried to talk him into getting some ''... for my upper jaw (in which I have but one tooth left, and that loose), for my lower one is still well furnished." However, a 28 guinea fee and the thought of a gold spring in each cheek put him off.

Another well-known literary colonist, Charlotte Bussell, wrote home, "Tell Willy Black if he would come out to Swan River he would make a fortune in no time, there is not a single dentist in the colony."

Sometimes nature anticipated the dentist. Thus Mrs Millett, who lived in York in the 1860s, ''The dry climate pretty well supersedes the need of pincers and forceps by causing the teeth to drop out even though undecayed." Many quite young people had apparently lost all their front teeth in this way.

The first WA Medical Act, in 1869, specifically exempted chemists, druggists and dentists from certain restrictions, and in the next twenty years the number of dentists increased, and advertising was rife. Dentistry in W.A. had, in fact, become a business.

Our museum contains recreations of both a dental surgery and workshop.