Dental Tribune USA

Telling the whole tooth: Not all the pundits got the flossing story quite right

By Patricia Walsh, RDH, Editor in Chief, Hygiene Tribune
October 10, 2016

Edith Wharton was the first woman to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize in fiction. “The House of Mirth” was written while she was residing in Paris. Her beloved home in Lenox, Mass., which she helped to design, is one of the lesser-known tourist attractions in New England. The formal grounds are as lovely as a Paris park; the gardens rival those of the stately Belle Époque mansions in Newport, R.I.

Wharton, who had no formal education, was taught by nannies and tutors as a small child. Newport was another beautiful town from her privileged upbringing. Her meticulous diary and prolific handwritten letters reveal that she and her husband, Teddy, once put off a trip from Paris to the south of Europe due to his medical condition. He was in a great deal of pain from terrible teeth. The doctors were trying a new ‘serum treatment’ on him. This was in 1909, prior to penicillin. The methodology of this ‘serum’ strategy wasn’t described, but I do know this: In France in the early 1900s, horse blood was thought to contain antibodies that could cure many illnesses. Regardless, Teddy never recovered enough to travel to the Whartons’ intended holiday destination. He eventually returned to the United States without Edith. His mental and physical health declined and he passed away in America.

A hundred years ago, money and position would not have been enough to keep you out of pain. Today, we might hear of a famous couple not being able to make it to their villa in the French Riviera due to weather-related flight delays. But an interfering toothache would likely be pretty low on the list of reasons to cancel a vacation.

Edith Wharton wasn’t the only celebrated author to discuss the woes of dental health. Her contemporary, Robert Louis Stephenson, spins the tale of a medical student named Fettes in “The Body Snatcher.” Fettes makes a horrifying discovery after having a tremendous toothache. Perhaps with the transition to modern dentistry and the discovery of antibiotics, the “toothache” used as a literary tool to connote foreboding will disappear into the dust of library shelves.

Robert Burns, the famous Scottish poet, agonized over dental pain and how it affected his ability to write. In 1795, he wrote: “The delightful sensations of an omnipotent toothache so engross all my inner man, as to put out of my power even to write nonsense.” Two years later, Burns composed, “Address to The Toothache” in Scottish dialect.

George Bernard Shaw once said: “The man with a toothache thinks everyone happy whose teeth are sound. The poverty-stricken man makes the same mistake about the rich man.”

Shakespeare laments the sad loss of power old age brings in “As You Like It,” writing:

“Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste,
sans everything.”

Toothaches, tooth loss and dentistry in general will always be discussed in popular culture, although today’s writing may less likely be poetry or novels. While the flossing controversy was playing out (you know the one I mean), I was tempted to post a sign on my dental chair’s overhead lamp stating: ‘”I don’t care what ‘Good Morning America,’ the New York Times and your Facebook feed say, you still have to floss your teeth.”

Health bloggers from here to Timbuktu jumped all over the fact that flossing was dropped from the guidelines issued by the U.S. departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services. If nothing else, it started a conversation with my patients about interdental cleaning in general. As the saying goes: There is no such thing as bad publicity as long as they spell your name right.

I thought a bit about the phrase “scope of practice” and how many times I had heard it mentioned by colleagues in my profession. In dentistry we know our limitations and expertise. We are legally and ethically bound not to overstep our areas of knowledge. As presenters at dental meetings, we are even obliged to carry special insurance in the event that we commit a transgression in this delicate area of “expertise.”

I dug a little into the backgrounds of some of the “expert” health writers for major newspapers. One health writer, who was quoted quite a bit during the recent flossing “skirmish,” was armed with a master’s degree in literature from Oxford University. Impressive. Her master’s thesis was based on the early 20th century Russian poet Vladimir Nabokov. Nabokov was a fascinating character with the same sort of aristocratic childhood as Edith Wharton. He also wrote about the profundity of dental woes.

“A toothache will cost a battle, a drizzle and an insurrection.”

I’m considering submitting an article to Car and Driver magazine suggesting that oil changes might not be a necessity.

After all, I own a car.

This article was published in Dental Tribune U.S. Edition, Vol. 11 No. 10, October 2016 issue.


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