Think of one of the most recognised satirical artworks of the 20th century, Grant Wood’s American Gothic. The oversized window of the Depression-era farmhouse. The frowning, distant woman. The pitchfork. That stern, tight-lipped and bespectacled, sombre male counterpart is a portrait based on Wood’s local dentist. Not the kind of face you want up close and personal rummaging around in your mouth.
“…I tried to characterise them truthfully – to make them more like themselves than they were in actual life,” the artist said at the time.
Such is the essence of the long-standing portrayal of dentists throughout history. As early as the 1300s, one of the six-hundred-and-fifty miniature illustrations of Omne Bonum is a medieval tooth puller: holding huge silver forceps and sporting a thick, lemniscate rope of molars. Written for King Edward III by Clerk of the Exchequer, James de Palmer, and literally meaning “All Good Things” it is the first attempted alphabetised encyclopaedia. Its four volumes contain one million words; although finishing it was obviously like pulling teeth with just one entry for the letters N through to Z.
Maybe de Palmer wandered off to kiss a donkey and cure his toothache, as was one belief of the Middle Ages. Surprising really, because the importance of good oral health was well known by the 1400s. Having white teeth and fresh breath was then very fashionable, rather than implicit as it is today. With a diet low in sugar and high in calcium, the Pythonesque offering of blackened and rotting medieval teeth is a furphy – there were many herb, ash, and salt preparations used. Presumably to avoid a trip to the barber for barbaric extraction without anaesthetic. Or at least a diversionary tropical aquarium.
For the one thousand years that spanned the 5th to the 15th century, archaeological studies show an average of 1-in-5 teeth decayed. By the early 1900s it was 9-in-10.
Sugar, take a bow…
So for most of human history, teeth were good, tooth-drawers were bad, and some asses were kissed. The term “dentist” didn’t appear until 1759, derived from the French word “dentiste” (“dent” meaning “tooth”) with the word-forming element “iste” signifying “one who does or makes”.
It’s easier to recall the cold portrayals than the kind, in film: the sadism of Marathon Man, Little Shop of Horrors, The Dentist; the moral bankruptcy of Cactus Flower and Novocaine.
And who can forget hot and harassing nymphomaniac Julia Harris of Horrible Bosses channeled through Jennifer Anniston?
In the critically acclaimed first season of Fargo, Billy Bob Thornton’s deadpan genius portrayal of Lorne Malvo is unforgettable. This frightening and fascinating hitman, with no conscience and brilliantly restrained malevolence, is the personification of relentless and evolving violence. In order to bag a bounty in the witness protection program, he posed and practiced as a dentist for six months. And here’s the rub: as dentist Mick Michaelson, he is well liked by his patients for his gentle hand and convivial nature. He is loved by fellow dental clinician Dr Burt Canton and his wife, and engaged to his beautiful dental assistant Jemma Stalone. He throws a great party. Is a charming and engaging dinner guest. The dentist you’d love to have. And in an elevator he shoots the Cantons and Jemma just to prove a point to a newly confident and prideful Lester Nygaard. “This one’s on you,” he says. “I worked this guy for six months, Lester. Six months! Can you imagine the number of sewer mouths I put my hands in? The gallons of human spit? Plus the hundred thousand ballot down the toilet, but still, the look on his face when I pulled the gun? Classic, huh?”
Brilliance with a burnisher.
It’s not all just mouthy maniacs. We also have the naïve and inept: Captain Kosciusko Waldowski in Altman’s M*A*S*H, Finding Nemo’s Dr Sherman; The In-Laws with Alan Arkin’s mild-mannered Shelly Kornpett. The Whole Nine Yards. And when Abbott and Costello have a 27-minute television routine with a near-sighted dentist in 1952’s The Dentist’s Office, regardless of who’s on first, you know nobody’s going to survive the rapid-fire patter and knockabout slapstick.
Is there any other, less unnerving and more creative online content about dentists? An endearing one at least? Dr Ted Brookes, in Snow Dogs comes to mind. The quintessential expectation of a Disney film. And just a year before that, the Golden Books production of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and the Island of Misfit Toys, where Hermey the Elf’s career change includes a Toothmobile and a crush on the Tooth Fairy.
Too twee? Try David Walliams’ children’s book The Demon Dentist – heartwarming for sure; certainly hilarious. And very, very creepy.
Why the bad rap throughout the arts for the one who does or makes teeth? Fear. Purely and simply. One of the seven universal emotions. Fear of the pain, the sounds, and the fact that you are scarcely more vulnerable than with your mouth wide open, filled with hands and implements, with no way to talk, and nowhere to run. Throughout the history of the arts narrative, strong emotions have always created the best legends, the best stories, the best visuals. The best transportation from the here and now; that most powerful transition from nobody to somebody.
When you can’t scream any louder or sweat any more, you become curious. You trust, you have courage, you have calm. From brutal and blundering, comes corny and comforting.
Archetypically – the pleasure from the pain. Like a trip to the dentist.
Next time you realise you’re putting off that check-up or seeing your typical trusted local dental bridges specialist, hold the philosophical position of Oscar Wilde: “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” Because when you recognise that real-life dentists are brilliant, so are your teeth.