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Curious Fact of the Week: When Dental Work Came With Song, Dance, and Cocaine

Painless Parker Dentist

Before local anesthesia could manage the pain, one early 20th century dentist distracted his patients with showgirls and brass bands. Painless Parker — or Edgar Parker as he was born in 1872 — found that a bit of the old razzle dazzle not only added enough commotion to keep a person from focusing too much on a tooth pulling, it drew an audience of prospective patients.

Dentist Painless Parker's bucket of teethPainless Parker’s bucket of teeth (photograph by Michelle Enemark)

Parker graduated from the dental school at Temple University in Philadelphia in 1892, and it’s there that two of his greatest props from his 59 years of dentistry remain: a necklace of 357 teeth he wore and claimed to have pulled in a single day, and a bucket of thousands of teeth yanked out of sore mouths from his traveling career.

He found that business was slow when he started his practice in Canada, so he decided to hit the road and wandered far and wide throughout the country and the United States, adopting the name “Painless Parker.” But he didn’t just bring much-needed medical care to the cities and the countryside — he brought them a show. 

Decked out in a white coat and a top hat, he stood at a chair on a horse-drawn wagon amidst dancing nurses and buglers, offering his patients a cup of whisky or cocaine-based “hydrocaine” to buck them up. Parker wasn’t the only vaudevillian dentist, as many took up gimmicks and a heavy helping of the theatrical to draw patients before regulated licensing. However, he was the most famous, helped in large part by a former publicity agent of P.T. Barnum. although this didn’t win him many friends with serious dental community. The American Dental Association declared him a “menace to the dignity of the profession.”

Dentist Painless Parker and his necklace of teethPainless Parker with his necklace of teeth; the necklace in the Dental Museum at Temple University (photograph by Michelle Enemark) 

According to Ann Anderson’s book Snake Oil, Hustlers and Hambones: The American Medicine Show, Parker proclaimed himself “the greatest all-around dentist in this world or the next,” and at the Flatbush Avenue office he set up in Brooklyn, his sign crowed: “Painless Parker. I am positively IT in painless dentistry.” The staggering “IT” loomed four stories tall. Yet even in a respectable, permanent location, he just couldn’t give up the lure of a crowd and would sometimes hit the streets with a brass band or hire tightrope walkers and “human flies” to climb his building. Later he opened a chain of dental parlors on the West Coast and even bought a circus in 1913, so his carnival included acrobats, magicians, jugglers, and even Parker riding atop an elephant himself. 

At one point, his “Painless Parker” moniker was maligned as false advertising, so in 1915 he legally switched his first name to “Painless.” He could then keep his catchy brand until his death in 1952.

Despite all his theatrics, Parker was an active supporter of preventative care before it was widely promoted, as well as local anesthesia. And Temple University still embraces their most flamboyant alumnus with the display of that bucket of teeth in their dental museum that is as much anything proof of his legacy of happy customers.

HISTORICAL DENTAL MUSEUM, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 


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