As we prepare to celebrate the fifth annual Lucy Hobbs Project Celebration and Reunion, we reflect on Dr. Lucy Hobbs Taylor, the first woman in America to graduate with a dental degree and an instrument she most certainly had at her disposal – the tooth key.
At one point in her autobiography, written in the third person, Lucy discusses her rise to prominence, after so many trials and tribulations: “Her reputation widened, until all Iowa knew of the woman that pulled teeth.” The emphasis is her own.
Just what did she use to pull those teeth? Most likely, it was the humble tooth key, such as the one on display in the dental museum at Benco Dental home office in Pittston, Pennsylvania.
Modeled after a door key, the dental key was used by first inserting the instrument horizontally into the mouth, then its “claw” would be tightened over a tooth. The long metal rod, or bolster, was placed against the root. The instrument was rotated to loosen the tooth and pop it out. This did not always go so smoothly, but often resulted in the tooth breaking, causing jaw fractures and soft tissue damage.
The first mention of the tooth key was found in Alexander Monro’s Medical Essays and Observations in 1742. The design of the dental key evolved over the years. The original design featured a straight shaft, which caused it to exert pressure on the tooth next to the one being extracted. This led to a newer design in 1765 by Ferdinand Julius Leber, in which the shaft was slightly bent. In 1796, the claw was fixed via a swivel enabling it to be set in various positions by a spring-catch. Newer designs, such as those manufactured by medical instrument maker Charriere featured interchangeable claws. The handle unscrewed and there was a screwdriver inside it with which to change the claw. By the end of the 19th century, the introduction of forceps made popular notably by Sir John Tomes, rendered the tooth key mostly obsolete. However, a modern version of the dental key, the Dimppel Extractor, briefly revitalized its use later in the 20th century.
Thankfully, dental health has come a long way from the days when Dr. Taylor earned the nickname “The woman that pulled teeth” and the tooth key is now a museum oddity, but women dentists are no longer seen as unconventional.