BY JACQUELINE G. GOODWIN, ED.D.
AMERICA’S FIRST FORENSIC DENTIST
As we all learned in grade school, Paul Revere was an American silversmith, engraver, early industrialist, and Patriot in the American. But did you know that Paul Revere was also a dentist?
Revere placed advertisements in a Boston newspaper offering his services as a dentist. The following advertisement appeared in the Boston Gazette on August 20, 1770, five years before his famous ride. It reads as follows:
“Paul Revere, Takes this Method ‘of returning his most sincere Thanks to the Gentlemen and Ladies who have employed him in the care of their Teeth, he would now inform them and all others, who are so unfortunate as to lose their Teeth by accident or otherways, that he still continues the Business of a Dentist, and flatters himself that from the Experience he has had these Two Years (in which Time he has fixt some Hundreds of Teeth) that he can fix them as well as any Surgeon-Dentist who ever came from London, he fixes them in such a Manner that they are not only an Ornament, but of real Use in Speaking and Eating: He cleanses the Teeth and will wait on any Gentleman or Lady at their Lodgings, he may be spoke with at his Shop opposite Dr. Clark’s at the North End, where the Gold and Silversmith’s business is carried on in all its Branches.”
According to historians at the Paul Revere House, “He not only cleaned teeth, but also wired in false teeth carved from walrus ivory or animal teeth. Contrary to popular myth, he did not make George Washington’s false teeth. Fabricating a full set of dentures was beyond his ability.”
Revere is also credited for developing a rudimentary form of orthodontia. In 1776, in the first known case of post-mortem dental forensics, Revere verified the death of his friend, Dr. Joseph Warren when he identified the bridge that he constructed for Warren. Thus, Revere inadvertently became America’s first forensic dentist when he was given the gruesome task of identifying the body of Warren, the man who sent him on his famous “midnight ride.” Warren was struck down by a British bullet during the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775 and his corpse was buried in a mass grave. When Warren’s family unearthed the grave nine months later, visual identification of the bodies inside was near impossible because they had decomposed. So Revere, the man who crafted the slain officer’s false teeth, was asked to locate Warren’s remains by finding the ivory dentures he crafted and wired to Warren’s jaw.
Identification of a person based on their teeth was an unconventional technique in the 18th century. Paul Revere’s use of simple forensic dentistry is described by the National Museum of Health and Medicine as “one of the earliest cases of forensic evidence used to identify a fallen American soldier.”
PENNSYLVANIA’S “PAINLESS” PARKER
Edgar Randolph “Painless” Parker began his dental practice in 1892, after his graduation from the Philadelphia Dental College (now the Temple University Maurice H. Kornberg School of Dentistry), when dentistry for widespread tooth decay was still emerging as a profession. At the time, it was considered unethical in the profession to solicit patients, so Parker found that after six weeks, he still hadn’t seen a single client. He decided to toss ethics to the wayside and start an advertising campaign. In exchange for a new set of dentures, the desperate dentist bartered with a sign maker for a placard that read “Painless Parker.” His business idea was deceptively simple: He would inject patients with a solution of watered-down cocaine and pull their teeth. The 50-cent extraction would be painless, he said, or he’d pay the patient $5. While his solution sometimes worked, sometimes it didn’t. Sometimes he just gave his patients a glass of whiskey instead.
But Parker wasn’t content to stop there. Donning a top hat, coattails and a necklace he made out of teeth (supposedly the 357 teeth he pulled in one day), he partnered with William Beebe, a former employee of P.T. Barnum, to create a traveling dental circus in 1913. At the show, Parker would bring a pre-planted person out of the audience and pretend to pull out a molar, showing the audience an already-pulled tooth he was hiding as evidence that the extraction was completely painless. Then, accompanied by a brass band, contortionists and dancing women, real patients would climb into the chair for the same procedure.
While he pulled the tooth out, still for 50 cents an extraction, Parker would tap his foot on the ground to signal the band to play louder—effectively drowning out the patient’s pained screams. He still used the cocaine solution—but instead of injecting it to numb the mouth, he’d squirt it into the cavity—and that only worked sometimes, if at all. Still, Parker managed to become popular. Dental patients and visitors liked the distraction of the brass band and the rest of the circus. Thanks to the band, no one heard the moans—and everyone but the hapless patient assumed the treatment didn’t hurt a bit.
Painless eventually left Pennsylvania and moved to California, leaving a horde of angry, hurting patients in his wake. The man who duped his aching patients was detested by his colleagues, too—the American Dental Association even called him “a menace to the dignity of the profession.”
HARRISBURG’S EARLIEST DENTIST
Perhaps Harrisburg’s earliest dentists of record, Dr. John Moffitt was the son of the Rev. John J. Moffitt, DD and Charlotte Eppley Moffitt. He was born on June 5, 1835 at Orwigsburg, PA. When he was two years old his father relocated the family to Ohio. As early dentists often did, the elder Moffitt practiced dentistry in addition to attending to his ministerial duties. John W. studied dentistry under his father’s guidance and also with Dr. Samuel Hullein of Wheeling WV, “evincing an aptitude and enthusiasm for dental art and being instructed in the then highly guarded mysteries of dental art and practice” as described in his obituary.
Dr. Moffitt opened a dental parlor in Cadiz, Ohio and in 1857 married Harriet R. Wenrick and settled down to practice dentistry in Harrisburg. He served in the Civil War as an Assistant Hospital Surgeon for the Union Army and was honorably discharged in 1864. For the next sixty years he carved and baked porcelain blocks and teeth for his own use and for that of the profession out of materials he dug up and then compounded. According to his obituary, “He supervised the manufacture of teeth on a large scale for some of the early manufacturers personally carving the models and molding casting and finishing the bronze molds baking the teeth and in fact doing everything necessary in tooth manufacture.”
Dr. Moffitt was a strong advocate of high fusing porcelain. “Despite his love for the ceramic art being an ardent disciple of Izaak Walton, he would leave a continuous gum case to catch a trout,” his obituary also states.
In 1860, Dr. Moffitt was awarded a patent for non-sectional block work baked on platinum. He is also credited with designing the pattern for the first bayonet shaped forceps made by a Philadelphia firm.
While Dr. Moffitt attended the Philadelphia Dental College in 1864, he did not present himself for examination for his degree until 1888, graduating from the same institution that he helped get a legislative charter after the Civil War.
For the next forty years he acted as a demonstrator in prosthetics and porcelain. His obituary states, “Hundreds of successful practitioners can look back gratefully to his instruction.”
Dr. Moffitt was buried in the Harrisburg Cemetery on March 2, 1914.