The Dreaded Dentist

By Lindsey-Jane, 70. Adelaide, SA

I told you this chapter would be coming soon, didn’t I? Well, it’s all about visiting the dentist in the ’50s.

There were many delightful aspects of living in the ’50s, but a visit to the dentist in that era was definitely not one of them. The six-monthly dental visit was something most people lived in dire fear and dread of.  Something akin to facing a firing squad. Well, almost.

My Mum insisted on a six-monthly visit, even though she knew my sister and I hated it with a passion and in those days, there was usually some work to be done. I think Australia had its water supply fluoridated in the mid-’60s, and although some were dead against it, I think whoever passed that law should have been awarded the Nobel Prize.

Back to the ’50s, though. Sickening smells from the dental surgery could be detected from miles away, it seemed to me, and hit you in the face as you approached the waiting room with trepidation. The odour was a strange mix of ether, pungent antiseptic and fear; a unique smell, something difficult to describe unless you were there. Some will know what I’m talking about! Our dentist initially had a surgery in a converted house in the small Adelaide hills town where we lived, then, when I was about seven, he took his practice into the city in the Liberal Club building on North Terrace. Here, a slow lift took us up to the fourth floor, then out into a long gloomy corridor — very anxiety-making.

Prior to the actual appointment with the dentist, I’d feel sick for days before and I think my Mum did too, although she played it down for the sake of my sister and me. The waiting room was almost as bad as the dentist’s chair, and no amount of books, magazines, colourful flowers or a cheery smiling nurse could take your mind off the fact that it was, and always would be, the dentist’s waiting room. People were known to faint there because of fear and anxiety. Sometimes, you’d hear a patient cry out in pain and others came out holding their hand over a  side of their face, which wasn’t exactly encouraging just before it was your turn.

Then came the actual dental examination. The dentist would lower his bright light, move his mirror around the mouth, lingering in some spots and muttering, while calling out things for his nurse to take note of such as upper left six, or lower right seven and you knew, from a fairly young age, that you were in trouble. Then came the verdict: Well, I’m afraid it’s bad news. There are four that need filling — quite big ones, too.  There were rare occasions where you’d have only one or even no fillings, which almost called for a celebration with cake and fireworks.

Dentists also used to take teeth out in multiple numbers and it was quite common for adults and kids alike to have a general anaesthetic and have four, six or even more teeth removed. Barbaric; and recovery was a nightmare, but I won’t go there, it’s quite gruesome and I don’t think that I can cope with telling it. Thankfully, these days, dentists will try to preserve teeth and only remove them if there’s absolutely no alternative or if the situation is life-threatening. Good old root canals are not exactly everyone’s idea of fun, but at least you can keep the tooth. Who wants to end up with dentures unless you have to? The dental therapist/hygienist also helps with prevention, and professional cleans every few months can help to keep potential problems at bay.

As you grew older and had more fillings they became larger and deeper and cause pain even after the anaesthetic had worn off. My dentist of recent years explained that this occurred mostly when the tooth wasn’t cleaned out properly and affected the nerve, resulting in a sharp, jarring pain. Got any twinges yet?  It’s no wonder people developed phobias, including me. It took a few visits to a very good psychologist to rid me of that and today, I’m dental-phobia free.

People were known to faint there because of fear and anxiety.

Lindsey-Jane, recalling visiting the dentist in the 1950s.

My first dentist I had from about the age of three until I was twenty and he was a good bloke and I know he always did his best with the knowledge available at the time for me and my family. I sort of liked him, yet didn’t like him, which was how most people regarded their dentists.

After a dental visit, my Mum would take me to have a milkshake. My favourites were pineapple ones (my mum’s favourite coffee shop, the Bohemian on North Terrace did the best milkshakes) and perhaps a cake. These tasted twice as delicious after you’d been delivered from the horrors of the dental surgery. The nauseous feeling and anxiety disappeared, the sun came out and all was lovely again until the next six months came around.

The above story is one of the reasons I’m so glad to be alive in the 21st century; indeed all medical advances in this day and age are incredible and I wouldn’t go back to the ’50s for anything. I’m willing to bet that many of you haven’t even had any fillings and have a mouthful of lovely white, untouched teeth. I should also really take this moment to thank my Mum for her vigilance in taking me to the dentist, as today my teeth are in pretty good shape.

Next time I’ll write a chapter about one of the pleasanter aspects of the 1950s. Promise!

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Margaret McCaffrey
1 year ago

I laughed. But it wasn’t funny at the time. My uncle was my dentist and he had an Irish temper.

1 year ago

I lived in the country. No dentist except the visiting school one. I can remember a tooth filling sitting on a metal seat in the town hall. No gentle nurse. No numbing injection. Just the dreaded drill whirring away….

1 year ago

Dear Margaret and Pol, thank you both for taking the time to read my ‘Dreaded Dentist’ article and for your comments. Visiting the dentist in the fifties was no laughing matter, especially with one who had an Irish temper and the other who performed the filling on an uncomfortable seat in the town hall, with no needle. You poor things..

Margaret McCaffrey
1 year ago

What I meant to say was that I laugh now, but I did NOT then. It was excruciating, and my uncle had a way of making it sound like the patient was to blame.

He was an Air Force veteran and wounded, so I could understood his frustration. But you’re just little and there’s no anaesthetic provided. No wins there. But life in that regard has improved a lot.