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Friday, October 18, 2013

Rough Medicine: dentistry


Toothache was so common on board ship (the grub being so tough and rough) that skippers became adept at handing out swabs soaked in oil of cloves (which works a treat), and drawing teeth. 

Mary, the young daughter of the famous captain "Bracewinch" Jarvis, who sailed on the Dundee bark Duntrune in 1896, reminisced later that she saw her father pull a tooth for one of the apprentices. "There was a hatch in the after cabin," she wrote, and "the poor boy was on his back on the hatch cover with my father's knee on his chest while Father struggled with the tooth.  I hope it was the aching tooth that came out," she remarked.

In view of that, Mary was understandably nervous when it was her time for dental work.  However, her father's cure was merely to bounce her on his knee until she was giddy, then suddenly part his legs so she thumped to the deck.  As a cure, it was ineffective, but perhaps the jolt took her mind off the ache.

The biggest problem of all was when the skipper himself was the one with toothache.  "All this week J [James] has suffered agonies with his teeth," wrote Maria Murphy in May 1884.  "Neuralgia set in and for two days and nights the pain was terrible -- he tried everything. The jumping pain is gone today but the tooth is very sore and grumbles all the time -- he has scarcely slept for a week ... Toothache and head winds are pretty hard to bear."