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Steel dental key, England, 1771-1800

Dental keys or tooth keys were introduced in 1730 and became the instrument of choice for tooth extraction from the 1770s onwards. The steel claw was placed over the top of the tooth and the bolster, the long metal rod to which the claw is attached, was placed against the root of the tooth. The key was then turned as if the user was opening a lock, hopefully removing the tooth. Undoubtedly this operation was extremely painful for the patient, causing injuries to the surrounding teeth and gums. The patient would have only had alcohol or herbal remedies for pain relief.

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Glossary: tooth pulling

The removal of a tooth from the mouth. Extractions are performed for a wide variety of reasons, including tooth decay that has destroyed enough tooth structure to prevent restoration. Extractions of impacted or problematic wisdom teeth are also routinely performed.

Glossary: dental key

Used in dentistry to remove diseased teeth. The dental key’s ‘claw’ would be tightened over a tooth. The instrument was then rotated to loosen the tooth. This often resulted in the tooth breaking, causing jaw fractures and soft tissue damage. It has been replaced by modern forceps.