Dentistry’s Advances, In Time for Fiction

As I mentioned in my recent blog article about the great advances in Late Victorian Dentistry (which qualify as “ultra modern”), the developments in the years preceding my setting for Isabella’s Calico Groom (1890) fueled my story development and characterization. Both hero and heroine are dentists, and this choice of profession ends up bringing them together (and keeping them apart).

Another recent blog article (Cocaine in Victorian Dentistry) focused on one specific detail of advancing science– the (1884-1885) discovery that cocaine had not only the ability to alleviate pain, but had the revolutionary ability to numb tissues (by interrupting nerve signals informing the brain of pain and/or injury). This discovery of the late nineteenth century was one of the significant advances that made late Victorian dentistry ultra modern. This ‘recent discovery’ was simply too important to ignore in the setting of my 1890 setting. To ignore cocaine’s use in 1890 dentistry (by compassionate dentists) would be much like setting a book in Chicago in October of 1871 and failing to mention the Great Chicago Fire.

Accuracy in historical settings matters to me. Not only to make the year the book is set mean something, but to help inform the character development.

Given the significant advance in Medical Science that occurred in 1889, the recognition not only of the Acid Dissolution Theory, but the debunking of the age-old belief that tooth decay (caries) was caused by worms, I had to include it! People– whether dentists or simply individuals concerned with their own health– gained insight based on legitimate scientific methods and advances in microbiology, and this awareness made a significant impact on dentistry.

Willoughby Miller an American dentist in Germany, notes the microbial basis of dental decay in his book Micro-Organisms of the Human Mouth. This generates an unprecedented interest in oral hygiene and starts a world-wide movement to promote regular toothbrushing and flossing.


~ American Dental Association, History of Dentistry, 19th Century

some emphasis added

Now, let me share the scientific breakthroughs that began the unprecedented interest in oral hygiene, as well as debunking the myths of yore.

Dental Carries Caused by Worms

Caries investigation was significantly advanced when a German-educated, American scientist, Dr. Willoughby D. Miller, described the Acid Dissolution Theory in 1890. Until that time, caries, the most common infectious disease affecting humans, was thought to be caused by worms. Using experimental approaches learned from Dr. Robert Koch, a German physician and pioneering microbiologist, Miller reproduced caries in an environment that simulated the oral cavity while working at the Free University of Berlin. Miller, who is recognized as the first oral microbiologist, was influenced to become a dentist by Dr. Frank P. Abbott, dean of New York College of Dentistry from 1911 to 1924, who was Miller’s partner in Berlin and his father-in-law.


~ NYU Dentistry: Technology in Dentistry, Through the Ages

Dr. Willoughby Dayton Miller. Image: Public Domain, Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Dental Caries Caused by Germs

The Micro-Organisms of the Human Mouth by Willoughby D. Miller

Published in German, 1889, and published in English in 1890 (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania).

Prophylaxis of Dental Decay (Part 1), Micro-Organisms of the Human Mouth, page 223. Note the Acid Dissolution Theory, as explained in the quotation, above.

Prophylaxis of Dental Decay (Part 2), Micro-Organisms of the Human Mouth, page 224.

Why Teeth Decay (1889)

The following newspaper article was published in The St. Joseph Herald of St. Joseph, Missouri, on January 15, 1889. An image of the vintage newspaper clipping follows the word-for-word transcription.


Microscopic Germs or Bacteria at the Seat of the Trouble.


Decay of the teeth (caries) is exceedingly common, especially so among civilized people. The lack of power to resist this disease may be due to the depression of vital vigor through overtaxing the nervous system or through sedentary habits and luxurious living. In this, as in other matters, there are inherited tendencies, and the children of those whose teeth decay early themselves suffer the same evils.


But what is the immediate cause of dental decay? A paper on the subject was read by Dr. George S. Allen of New York before a meeting of the dental union lately held in Boston.


According to this paper, the credit of solving the question belongs to Dr. W.D. Miller an American residing in Berlin, Germany. The solution is found in the germ theory, which has already settled the origin of so many infectious diseases.


The microscopic germs, which are called bacteria, the smallest of organized beings, so small that it takes 100,000 of them placed lengthwise to measure an inch, belong to the plant family. They multiply both by division and by the formation of spores. The spores, which correspond to seeds, have great vitality, and are unaffected by the temperature that would destroy the parent plant. The multiplication by division is exceedingly rapid.


Thus the total eradication of the germs is almost out of the question, and in even a short time, if the pests be neglected, it becomes difficult to limit the harm they can do. That harm may be effected either by the growth of the bacteria at the expense of the cells of the body or more probably, perhaps, by developing a poison in their waste products.


It must be remembered, however, that many kinds of bacteria are perfectly harmless, while it is possible that some aid in the vital processes of the organism.


The mouth is infested by several forms of innocent bacteria. The salva [sic] is never free from them. Therefore, in order to ascertain if dental carries [sic] is due to bacteria, most rigorous tests were necessary. The bacteria must be found in the decayed matter of the teeth; be isolated from every other kind; cultivated outside of the body, and the pure cultivation must produce a similar caries when introduced into a healthy tooth, and this caries must show the same form of bacteria.


Dr. Miller’s experiments have conformed to these tests. He found bacteria filling the tubules of the decayed teeth; obtained pure cultures from them, and, placing the latter in tubes with pieces of sound teeth, the microscope in from two to four weeks showed a similar caries, and the tubules distended with similar bacteria.


The St. Joseph Herald of St. Joseph, Missouri on January 15, 1889

emphasis added

Scans of the original 1889 newspaper follow. Though not easy to read, the original may be viewed in larger format by clicking on each of the two separate images.

Why Teeth Decay, Part 1. Published in The St. Joseph Herald of St. Joseph, Missouri. January 15, 1889.

Why Teeth Decay, Part 2. Published in The St. Joseph Herald of St. Joseph, Missouri. January 15, 1889.

Up Next!

Common Details of Western Historical Romance that are Historically INCORRECT, Part 1

because this Common Detail (usually incorrect, as far as history goes) is an element in Isabella’s Calico Groom

Related Posts covering Dentistry in the Victorian Era:

Copyright © 2018 Kristin Holt LC