At that time, scissors were standard equipment in dental offices


From the archives of Sault Ste. Marie Public Library:

What do you think of a visit to the dentist? No matter how anxious you might feel about going to a dentist, it’s probably safe to assume that your visit would be a much less traumatic experience today than it was in the 19th century!

For those who lived in Algoma in the 1800s, dental care was probably not a high priority for many residents, and they were unlikely to seek help unless they had a painful toothache.

The current treatment for this disease was extremely painful, so people had to weigh the balance between the pain of the toothache and the pain of the treatment! Most dental traditions come from French methods of “bleeding and dental drawing”.

The “dentists” of the early to mid-1800s had no way of pulling the tooth out until it was loose enough for them to grab it. Without special tools for this purpose, the patient was put in a tub of water and then the affected molar was split with a chisel! To kill the nerve in the tooth, a small hot iron was then applied to the tooth.

Usually, the pain would go away within a few hours of completing this “treatment”. In a few days, the patient would come back, the tooth would already be loose enough and we could then pull it out! It is difficult for us to imagine how painful this practice would have been.

With these methods of treatment being followed, it was clear to many that dentistry needed to be regulated and that there was a need for training in the proper methods of dental care.

On March 4, 1868, a bill was passed that marked the history of the world. It was the first bill to regulate dentistry in the world. The wording of this new law stipulated that “persons practicing dentistry should be examined by a competent council as to their qualification”.

The Royal College of Dental Surgeons (RCDS) was established and the first school of dentistry opened. It consisted of a conference room and an infirmary. The course lasted four months, followed by a two-year apprenticeship and the tuition was $ 100. Soon after, it was affiliated with the University of Toronto and the curriculum was extended to three years.

With this formal dental training now standard, Sault Ste. Marie was eager to have a dentist to open a practice here. Dr JA Shannon graduated in 1888 as a formally trained dentist.

After graduating, he began practicing in southern Ontario in Dutton, Ontario, then moved to Sault Ste. Marie in 1895 to become one of the first dentists to practice here.

His mother was a member of the prominent Adams family and his uncle, Dr William Adams was a practicing physician here, so with that family connection he was encouraged to come to Sault Ste. Married. He built a new home at 659 Queen Street East, directly across from the Leland Hotel, then moved his dental practice to his home.

Dr Shannon and his wife had four children and his daughter, Marion Shannon, lived in the house until the early 1970s or so. Dr Shannon has become an active member of his new community. He served on city council, school board, YWCA, Central United Church, and was president of the PUC from 1917 to 1946. By the time of his death in 1946, he had seen many more dentists arrive and establish practices, including his own son, Dr. George Shannon who joined him in his practice in 1919.

With so many dentists practicing in the city, the methods of treating dental problems have certainly improved over the years and a trip to the dentist these days is not normally something to worry about. As we now know, preventing dental problems begins with proper nutrition and brushing and cleaning our teeth.

In 1984, local dentist Dr Terry Kearns brought back a glimpse of what a dental office looked like during the first half of the twentieth century.

During a visit to Toronto, a friend mentioned that she had stored the equipment in her father’s dental office in his basement and was looking for someone who would be interested in purchasing it. His father, Dr. Joseph Dietrich had graduated in 1922 and then practiced for 54 years.

Dr. Kearns decided to take the ancient equipment back to the Sault with him. When he moved his practice to Churchill Plaza in 1983, he was able to work with local architect Perry Short and design a special space in his new office to display this former dentist’s office!

This exhibit included a hydraulically operated chair from 1908, a dental pedal unit from 1915, and vintage x-ray and sterilization equipment from the mid-1930s.

A photo from Dr. Dietrich’s class of 1922 was prominently displayed on the wall. For many older people, this display likely reminded them of their first visits to the dentist.

With the advent of the electric drill and more recent advancements, a visit to the dentist is no longer to be feared. Fortunately, any of us visiting our dentist’s office are unlikely to have come across a chisel as one of the tools used in dental treatment recently!

Each week, the Sault Ste. The Marie Public Library and its archives give SooToday readers a glimpse into the city’s past.

Find out what the public library has to offer at and look for more columns here


About Author

Leave A Reply