Drills, thrills and chills History: Relax. A visit to Baltimore's new dental museum won't hurt a bit. It's open wide, with a fun and fascinating look at pain and progress.

June 22, 1996|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

Who said dentistry isn't colorful? Who said dentists aren't imaginative or funny?

Consider the saga of Painless Parker, a featured character at Baltimore's new National Museum of Dentistry. He was a restless young dentist who found Philadelphia too small for his ambitions, and went West.

Parker, a 1872 graduate of the Philadelphia Dental College, probably had a talent for dentistry. He certainly had one for self-promotion, not to mention a weakness for blithe exaggeration.

He was a one-man carnival who rode the trail in a big horse-drawn wagon and occasionally advertised his services on the wide side of an elephant. But he also knew how to defend himself against customers who naively took seriously the impossible promise suggested by his name.

He wasn't always Painless. He was born Edgar Parker, but had his name legally changed to elude lawsuits for false advertisement, which seemed to follow him like tumbleweeds.

He made $3 million and retired to California.

Other than people like Painless Parker, and Zane Grey, who was also a dentist, maybe den-tistry as a profession is a little monochromatic.

Maybe it is "oft-maligned," as suggested in the literature on the new dentistry museum, which opened yesterday at 31 Green St. Maybe it is boring.

Ben Z. Swanson, the dentist in charge of it, admitted that most of the humor of dentistry is not generated by dentists. Which led him to express a concern that fellow practitioners visiting the place might "think we put dentistry in a bad light."

That was never the intention. The people at the University of Maryland Dental School concluded that levity would be the best way to bring in the 40,000 or more visitors they anticipate each year.

"If we did it as a [serious] dental museum, dentists would enjoy it, but the public wouldn't come," said Swanson.

Nor would parents bring their children, and it is children the museum is trying to reach, by giving them an inkling of the benefits that flow from a regimen of good oral hygiene.

"Whatever people think of what a dental museum would be like, they are going to be surprised when they come here," Swanson said. He's right. There are things to see, for everybody.

'Teeth Feats'

George Washington's last real tooth is there, as are his four false dentures (except the one he was buried with), none of which was made of wood.

(George Washington seems to have had difficulty with his teeth, was never comfortable, and probably could have done with the services of a Painless Parker.)

For Anglophile dental buffs, Queen Victoria's scalers are on display, with their mother-of-pearl handles and silver mounts fashioned to look like miniature crowns, appropriate instruments penetrate the imperial mouth upon which the sun never set.

There are the world-famous Motor Molars, a chewing machine invented to test the strength and durability of materials used to restore teeth. Turn them on: They are hypnotic, like those windup plastic teeth that go yakety-yak.

There are movies to watch, like "Teeth Feats," which show the strong-jawed of both sexes doing extraordinary things with their teeth. Things like water-skiing, pulling locomotives, painting pictures, writing letters, hanging perilously from great heights.

There is the Tooth Jukebox. Push a button and view your favorite singing toothpaste commercial from days gone by: like that supercilious little kid who ran up to the camera shouting, "Look, Ma! No cavities!"

There is grotesquerie, always appealing to children: four life masks with teeth altered in ways different cultures found attractive, like sharpened to points, blackened, gold studded and knocked out.

Exotica: consider the tongue scraper, a popular device in India and points east, and all the rage in England and France in the 18th Century, but which never became popular in this country.

Dr. Swanson, a dental historian as well as practitioner, who collected many of the artifacts on display in the museum, relates how he once wrote a paper on the use of tongue scrapers for the American Dental Association's journal. It prompted his wife to take up the use of the thing.

Mrs. Swanson's still at it, every day brushing the papillae of the tongue.

Maybe she'll start a trend.

There is science: Did you know that teeth first appeared on this earth in the hinge of mollusk shells?

That was 420 million years ago, a long way from the toothy excess of Liberace.

History: facts and factoids -- dentures were first made in Japan, in 1500, of wood.

The first users of toothbrushes (fashioned of twigs and roots) were the Hindus, around 6,000 years ago. Dentists invented chewing gum (who else?), the golf tee (no doubt), cotton candy (wouldn't you know?).

Religion: on display are four Andy Warhol silk screens of Saint Apollonia. She is the unfortunate Egyptian maid who declined to renounce her Christianity, and for that had all her teeth yanked out. Without anesthetic. She then thwarted her executioners by killing herself.

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