Willoughby: Painless tooth extraction claims vs. reality, then and now

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
Dental Hall at the University of Pennsylvania in 1904.
Library of Congress/courtesy pho

Aspen’s only dentist at the time, Dr. Henry, opened his office in 1957. He filled my cavities while I was a grade school student. My first experience with a dentist was no laughing matter. I remember a very loud drill and intense pain. I do not remember anesthetic. Decades passed before anyone would tend my teeth without my blood pressure rising and my palms sweating.

Henry’s departure a few years later left Aspen without a dentist. In 1961, William Comcowich, a new dentist, took up residence during one of few times Aspen did not offer a choice of dentists. Other than those few years, since 1885 at least two dentists have maintained the teeth of the town. Almost all of them set up practice on the second floor of one of Aspen’s downtown businesses.

J.D. Todd, or “Dr. Todd the dentist,” began his practice in Denver, added part time work in Aspen, and transitioned to Aspen full time. He competed with Dr. Hill, who also practiced in Glenwood.

Dr. B.H. Seaton replaced Hill and advertised “teeth extracted without pain,” an important theme to attract patients. Dr. W.R. Wilson replaced Seaton and reflected my feelings when he said, “usually when one has a tooth to be pulled or filled, they get very nervous over it and think they will be half killed during the operation.”

Concern about licenses for dentists had arisen in 1889, when the State Dental Board formed to license the profession. The board had to decide whether someone who attended a dental school would automatically receive a license. Dental schools had started opening during the 1840s. By 50 years later, The Ohio State University and the University of Pennsylvania counted on a short list of such schools. Some dentists skipped formal training and learned the craft on their own. The board decided to require that dentists pass an exam before they would receive a license.

Dental education and license exams of that time may seem primitive by today’s standards. But the profession had advanced dental health. Dentists touted their experience installing the standard gold crown. And porcelain began to make inroads into the crown market. Dentists built dental plates of varying materials to replace missing teeth.

Dr. Wilson added an innovation in 1891. He installed a telephone, Number 67. His patients could make an appointment from home, without taking the time and courage to visit his office. The service worked well for those who owned a home telephone.

Dental tools have not changed much. But today’s dentists hide their instruments of torture on small trays, out of a patient’s field of vision.

Customers did not care so much about dental devices, tools and innovations as they did about pain relief. The common treatment for a toothache was extraction, and anesthetic made the procedure tolerable. Dentists who advertised, “Gas administered” alluded to nitrous oxide, also known as laughing gas.

A multi-talented gentleman of 1895, Dr. Frank Andrews, advertised as a “veterinary surgeon and dentist.” Imagine, during your tooth extraction, asking him to diagnose your ailing horse, “Hi….ss mouth, oh, OW, looks ike mine wit drool.”

Do you suppose Dr. Andrews gave laughing gas to donkeys? And if so, would they laugh their gas off?

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at