Why a trip to the dentist is now something we can get our teeth into
When ageing feminists get together, they will sometimes discuss "what development was the greatest benefit to women in our lifetime". Some name the Pill, some the motor car, some choose better education and career opportunities, some nominate equal pay. I would like to suggest that modern dentistry be added to the list.
Throughout the ages, older women could expect to be toothless crones by their 60s. If nature had her way, I would surely be a toothless crone by now. Ten days ago, as I was chewing gum - a post-cigarette habit - I felt a sinister, hard lump in my mouth. OMG! It was the best part of a main tooth, sited near the front of my mouth. The tooth had crumbled from its base and come away. Cronedom beckons.
I rescued the corpse of the crumbled tooth and took it along to the dentist. And within 15 minutes flat he had done some sort of magic trick, using an array of lasers, evacuating instruments and dental cement, and put it all back together again. Where there had been a broken shell in my mouth, now there was, once again, a perfectly reconstructed tooth.
The only extraction involved was from my credit card. And I left the dental surgery thinking that when we count our blessings, "the miracle of modern dentistry" should number among them.
When oldies recollect their childhoods, they often remember a visit to the dentist as being akin to entering a torture chamber, with the frightful treadle drill and a nauseating smell of antiseptic. The dentist's chair has remained as an emblem of torment because of such memories. Laurence Olivier did the dental profession no favours when he played the cruel and sinister Nazi dentist in Marathon Man, applying excruciating oral pain to Dustin Hoffman. It hits a nerve not because dentists are cruel, but because, lying back in the dentist's chair, we feel vulnerable.
But dentists should be declared heroes, really. They have hugely advanced the health and even happiness of humanity. They have consistently relieved pain and are always developing new ways to progress dental surgery. They now routinely check for signs of oral cancer. Dentists themselves can suffer from "transmitted stress" - the stress felt by the patient in the dental chair is communicated to them. They are also said to feel "status anxiety", because dentists traditionally don't have quite the same social position as doctors.
There's no Jewish joke about the proud mother on a Florida beach shouting: "Help, my son the dentist is drowning!" And yet, in America, good dentistry has been greatly prized for decades. When a Balkan friend of mine - a university professor - asked if my sister could help him get a visa for America, Ursula replied: "Yes, but he can't go to America with those teeth. The taxis would never pick him up. He'll have to see a dentist." True, the Serbian academic had poor teeth, but until then I hadn't realised that bad teeth could be such a stigma in the US. (Question at Immigration: "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party, or do you have bad teeth?")
When the novelist Martin Amis obtained a million dollars for a book advance in the Nineties, he said he needed the money to fix his teeth. This was considered an outrageous act of vanity in London - "all that money for a Liberace smile?" - but in New York, it was thought as entirely rational.
Look at any set of American teeth: look at Hillary Clinton when she speaks and smiles - the most perfect set of gnashers that American dentistry can provide. They may be capped, polished, be assisted by implants, and cosmetically whitened, and thus they are faultless. Knocking on 70, Hillary, too, would very probably be a toothless crone if dentistry had not corrected nature.
Advanced dentistry has now crossed the Atlantic, and the costs are reflected proportionately. But I think that dental care always cost money. In the Twenties and Thirties, people would have all their teeth extracted at a young age so as to save the expense - and pain - of visiting the dentist for the rest of their lives.
Dental policy, up to the Sixties, favoured extractions as a remedy for tooth problems. Then the policy switched to "save whatever can be saved". Today it is not only save, but reconstitute, do the root canal work - that's still an ordeal because you have to lie for so long in one position - implant, rebuild, insert bridges. One person in 10 still fears getting into the dental chair. It's a pity because modern dentistry can do wonders and can change lives.
But children today have a much more positive attitude. My granddaughters shout "Hooray!" when they're due for a trip to the dentist, because they get all kinds of stickers and colouring books as rewards.
It may help that many dentists attending to young children are women, who may indeed be better at treating the very young. And children are thrilled when they're told they may have to wear dental braces. It's a status symbol now.
Arthur MacMurrough Kavanagh, Westminster MP for Carlow in the 1860s, was born without legs or arms, yet he wrote at the end of his life, that the greatest affliction he had known was excruciating toothache. We should appreciate the great achievements of modern dentistry a lot more than perhaps we do.