Bizarre Dental History—Painless Parker

Imagine: you decide, after brunch with a few friends, to take a walk in the park. It’s a beautiful day and, as couples share picnics and dogs catch frisbees in their mouths, a live band begins playing your favorite song. You’re feeling good, and just as you’re about to say so to your friends, you become horrified by the sight of a dentist extracting someone’s tooth right there in the middle of the park! As you stand there, debating your sanity, other people begin lining up to become this dentist’s newest patient.

“If the extraction’s not painless, I’ll gladly give you your money back!” proclaims this dentist, with the tone and cadence of a carnival barker.

How would you react? Would you think it was a legitimate practice or a foolish hoax?

Edgar R. R. Parker did just this while performing dentistry throughout the early 1900s. He nicknamed himself “Painless Parker,” and many people believe he was a pioneer in affordable healthcare. But we’ll get to all of that. First, a little history: 

Originally a sailor, Parker went into dentistry in the late 1800s. He was dismissed, however, from the New York College of Dentistry shortly after they discovered he was performing door-to-door tooth removals in exchange for cash. In 1892, Parker attained a degree from what is now called Temple University. Dr. Amid Ismail, Temple University’s dean, has stated that Parker was a terrible college student and had to resort to begging the dean to allow him to graduate—which he did.

It was improper for health care providers to solicit to new patients during those years. Therefore, Parker only saw one single patient in the first six weeks that his new practice in Canada was open. Parker was both uncompromising and intuitive, and he worked out an innovative advertising scheme to amass the patients—and consequent recognition—for which he yearned. Enter “Painless Parker’s Dental Circus.”

In 1913, with the help of a flashy horse-drawn carriage, a sizable music ensemble, and classic sideshow characters like tattooists and little people, Painless Parker—alongside his colleague, William Beebe—transformed dentistry into a roaming spectacle. Parker began the show by first speaking about the value of dental hygiene. Then he would take a “volunteer” from the audience and pretend to extract one of his or her teeth. A little trickery, beguilement, and a tooth that Parker masked in his palm were all it took for innocent bystanders to enlist themselves to be his next patient. Parker proclaimed that the extraction price was half a dollar, and if it wasn’t painless he would give $5 (which he never had) to the patient. This is where the orchestra came into play. The moment the patient climbed up onto his dentist chair, Parker would tap his foot to beckon the musicians to play louder. The roar of the band excellently muffled any shouts or screeches from the poor patient.

Because Novocain had not been invented at this time, Parker blended his own personal solution that he referred to as “hydrocaine”—made from watered down cocaine—which he administered directly inside the cavity. When that didn’t stop the ache, he would offer his patients whiskey.

As you can imagine, Parker was disliked by a lot of his colleagues, including the American Dental Association. The ADA ultimately claimed Parker was “a menace to the dignity of the profession.” Though he had his traveling dental show running up to the 1930s, Parker relocated to California in 1915 and launched 30 Painless Parker Dental Clinics. It was around this time that he legally changed his name to Painless Parker so as to minimize any lawsuits for erroneous advertisements.

Rolf G. Behrents submitted a report to the American Journal of Orthodontics & Dentofacial Orthopedics website, which stated: “He also developed and sold Painless Parker dental products (mouthwash, toothpaste, and so on). He used airplanes to tow advertising banners. He made educational films about oral hygiene. He had a nationally-syndicated call-in radio show about dentistry. He saw to the dental needs of zoo animals (he called this ’hippodontia’). He also became a celebrity dentist, treating many glamorous movie stars of the time… Wherever there was a situation offering visibility and free advertising, he seemed to make the most of the opportunity.”

Although Painless Parker wasn’t entirely trustworthy in his practices, he changed the way we now think about dentistry. For example, he believed firmly in affordable health care and didn’t bill his patients for rudimentary assessments. He extended credit to poorer patients, distributed vouchers, and used marketing and advertising as a way to instruct the general public on the seriousness of oral health and wellness. Plus, by launching about 30 dental practices across America, he had the opportunity to hire teams of dentists, hygienists, and assistants that could support many more patients than previously possible. 

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Also, if you feel like it’s time for a checkup (and you don’t want to have it done in the middle of a park), make sure to schedule an appointment with Dr. Hodges today.