19th Century Mendo Dentistry

by Malcolm Macdonald, November 1, 2017

At this time of year in 1879 Mendocino County was consumed with news regarding what came to be called “The Mendocino Outlaws,” a band of San Quentin alumni who had ambushed and killed two members of a constable's posse. At the center of the story was the dentist in the town of Mendocino, John Fleming Wheeler.

Wheeler arrived in Mendocino in the summer of 1878, where he opened an office on Main Street. He'd previously practiced in Marin County. By September he ran the following notice on Page 2 of the Mendocino Beacon:


Would respectfully announce to the public that he is prepared to practice Dentistry in all its departments. All operations performed in a skillful manner and charges very moderate. Teeth extracted without pain. Special attention given to the correction of irregularities in the teeth of the youth. Some of the greatest deformities in the position of the teeth may be remedied to perfection. Consultations free. Office at Norton's Hotel.

Wheeler was thirty-six-years-old when he settled in Mendocino. He possessed a large nose, accenting the sunken cheeks and spare features of his face. Any patient would have noticed the mole near the dental surgeon's right ear, though they might have missed the tiny wart on his right eyelid and the equally small warts on the middle finger of his right hand.

By mid-October, 1878, Wheeler had won over William Heeser, the publisher/editor of the coastal town's newspaper. In a Page 3 section entitled “Local Intelligence,” Heeser wrote, “We were this week shown some work performed by our dentist, Mr. Wheeler, which speaks very highly of him as being a first-class dentist. Those wishing work in his line done should not fail to call on him at once, as by so doing they will benefit themselves, and also encourage a man of worth to locate in our midst.”

At the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865 only three dental schools existed in the United States, the earliest was the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery which opened in 1840. It followed, by one year, the publication of the first magazine devoted to the subject, The American Journal of Dental Science. In 1844, Horace Wells discovered the anesthetic uses of nitrous oxide to relieve pain during tooth extractions. Two years after that William Thomas Green Morton, of Boston, publicly demonstrated the effectiveness of ether in dental practice.

Prior to the improvements brought by men like Wells and Morton tooth extraction was often performed by the local blacksmith or farrier. For those distant from a smitty or farrier, a family member might grip a pair of pliers and have at a quarrelsome tooth.

In ancient times the Chinese constructed rudimentary toothbrushes from the bristly neck hairs of pigs. Though French aristocrats had access to toothbrushes in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, toothbrushes were not mass produced until William Addis of Clerkenwell, England did so around 1780. The idea came to him while he was in prison watching a guard sweep the floor with a broom.

The toothpastes of the early 1800s were really powders and largely homemade, consisting of everything from pulverized brick to chalk and salt. Closer to Dr. Wheeler's time, the 1866 Home Encyclopedia cautioned that most patented tooth powders were more harmful than helpful, though the publication recommended crushed charcoal.

War often created advancement in the medical sciences through practical necessity. Before the Civil War dentures were ill-fitting, collected odors, and discolored easily. A great number of materials were used as substitute teeth: walrus or hippopotamus tusks, metals of almost all sorts, tortoise shell, porcelain, coral, wax, and gutta percha. Human teeth were sometimes employed, especially after battlefield carnage. The cover of night following Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo provided ample opportunity for scavengers. So many sets of frontal teeth were taken from dead soldiers that the market for dentures in Europe and North America was flooded. For decades the terms “Waterloo dentures” and “Waterloo teeth” were understood throughout the world. Of course, such teeth/dentures often did not fit perfectly into the mouth of their new owner. The discovery of vulcanized rubber and its implementation during the Civil War, as a replacement for gold-based dentures and “Waterloo teeth,” proved a tremendous money saver as well as a comfort to patients.

If one thinks about positioning, it is easy to picture why barbers often sufficed as self-taught dentists in the days before James Beall Morrison, from Steubenville, Ohio, invented and patented the first adjustable dental chair. Morrison, who eventually settled in Missouri, also invented the first effective power-driven dental tools. His dental engine helped position a movable arm that the practitioner held in his (or her – there was one college educated female dentist practicing in the 1870s and probably many without degrees) hand. The hand piece contained a drill, powered by a foot treadle that in turn activated a belt drive.

The foot treadle, power-driven drill came into fairly wide practice soon after its invention in 1871. It is likely that John F. Wheeler would have employed such a machine. For patients in western outposts like Mendocino, formerly accustomed to far rougher dentistry, Wheeler's use of such a contraption, may have seemed a godsend.

Examining the records of C.O. Packard, Mendocino's town druggist at the time of Wheeler's practice, we can see that the dentist purchased items such as ether, chloroform, quicksilver, quinine, medicinal alcohol, and gentian. Other orders made by Dr. Wheeler from Mendocino's apothecary included castile soap and camphor. Druggists, or dentists themselves, of that period often created their own tooth powders. Common ingredients were sodium bicarbonate, calcium carbonate, castile soap, and camphor, the latter added for its antiseptic properties.

From C.O. Packard's prescription lists of 1878 and 1879 (available by research appointment at Mendocino's Kelley House Museum) also show John F. Wheeler to be a man who favored Hoyt's Cologne products as well as Seidlitz Powder. That particular product indicates that Wheeler suffered from indigestion. A discomfort that surely grew worse after his part in the criminal plans of the Mendocino Outlaws came to public light late in 1879.

(Lawbreakers and jawbreakers are rooted at malcolmmacdonaldoutlawford.com)

One Response to 19th Century Mendo Dentistry

  1. George Hollister Reply

    November 6, 2017 at 8:24 am

    Thanks to the AVA, and MM for this. Notice how the design of barber chairs, and dentist chairs is similar. I suspect this has something to do with a common origin.

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