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Dental key, England, 1725-1780

Dental key, England, 1725-1780

Credits: Science Museum

Dental keys or tooth keys were introduced in the early 1700s and became the instrument of choice for tooth pulling from the 1770s onwards. They remained in common use until the beginning of the twentieth century. This early example looks like a door key from the same period. The claw was placed over the top of the tooth and the bolster, the long metal rod to which the claw is attached, was placed against the root of the tooth. The key was then turned as if the user were opening a lock and the tooth would hopefully be removed – although dental keys were notorious for causing injury. Undoubtedly this operation was extremely painful for the patient, who probably had to be restrained. Tooth pulling was carried out by a range of people including barber-surgeons and travelling practitioners and was the most common remedy for diseased teeth. Dentistry did not become a regulated and licensed profession until the late 1800s.

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Glossary: tooth pulling

The removal of a tooth from the mouth. Extractions are performed for a wide variety of reasons, including tooth decay that has destroyed enough tooth structure to prevent restoration. Extractions of impacted or problematic wisdom teeth are also routinely performed.

Glossary: dentistry

The study, treatment and management of diseases affecting the mouth, jaws, gums, teeth and their supporting tissues.

Glossary: dental key

Used in dentistry to remove diseased teeth. The dental key’s ‘claw’ would be tightened over a tooth. The instrument was then rotated to loosen the tooth. This often resulted in the tooth breaking, causing jaw fractures and soft tissue damage. It has been replaced by modern forceps.