Waring Library Society Medical History Moment
By Theresa S. Gonzales
Recently I had a health issue that I had never experienced before, after practicing dentistry for more than 32 years: I had a toothache. It occurred to me, though I have treated literally thousands of toothaches in my career, I had never had any pain related to my dentition.
Now the experience is indelibly etched in my memory. It was around 2:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning and the pain registered about a seven on a ten-point scale. Having never had the experience before, I was not entirely sure that the event was not a harbinger of something more ominous. Like the neurologist who has never experienced a headache, I was amazed at the acuity of the situation and rather thankful that I had not experienced this condition more frequently.
I vacillated between considerations of toothache and brain tumor as I reconciled my symptoms. The pain progressed predictably during the next several hours and by noon I was praying to Saint Apollonia for relief from my misery. St. Apollonia is regarded as the patroness of dentists. For millennia, people suffering from toothache and other dental diseases often pleaded for her intercession. On this particular day I understood why.
It is hard for me to imagine what it must have been like to experience toothache in the days before local anesthetic agents were routinely deployed in the management and treatment of dental disease. Even today, dental caries is the most common infectious disease of childhood and left untreated it creates significant disease and disability.
Long before there was a profession devoted to the management of dental maladies there was toothache. William Shakespeare wrote, “There was never yet philosopher that could endure the toothache patiently.” Not surprisingly, teeth were scarce in antiquity because we only had a single treatment: extraction of the offending tooth. Imagine for a moment consenting to an extraction without the benefit of a local anesthetic agent. It is unconscionable and yet this was common practice for thousands of years. In ancient times, sufferers pleaded for Apollonia’s mercy and the requisite efficiency in the performance of the extraction. Although little is known about Apollonia the person, much is known about Apollonia the saint.
Apollonia was born in Alexandria, Egypt and died in the year 249. Apollonia was an elderly deaconess who with other Christians was attacked during a riot of the city’s pagans. Apollonia was beaten severely; one account states that her teeth were knocked out with a bludgeon and another version of the assault has her teeth being pulled one by one as torture. Her tormentors demanded that she renounce her Christian faith or die by fire. The story goes on that she paused, as if considering their request, then leaped into the flames, dying a martyr’s death. Her death was recorded by several contemporary historians, including St. Augustine. For centuries, she has been venerated as the patron of dental diseases and her name is often invoked by those with toothaches. Ancient art depicts her with a golden tooth at the end of her necklace or with a pincers holding a tooth.
St. Apollonia was venerated in works of art and more particularly in her relics that are scattered throughout Europe. Bone fragments are claimed by numerous churches in Rome as well as churches in in Antwerp, Brussels and Cologne, Germany to name a few. Even in Charleston, the “Holy City,” a wood carving of her likeness is on display at the Waring Library. The wooden icon was generously donated by Patricia L. Blanton DDS, PhD, interim dean of the James B. Edwards College of Dental Medicine, on behalf of all those who have experienced toothache from past to present. I intend to pay a visit to St. Apollonia in the very near future to thank her for assistance in centuries of orofacial pain management.
The Waring Library Society is a “friends of the library” organization that supports the mission of MUSC’s Waring Historical Library. Named for Joseph I. Waring, Jr., its first director, the Waring Historical Library preserves rare books, manuscripts and museum artifacts documenting the history of the health sciences in South Carolina and the Southeast. To learn more about the Waring’s programs and events or inquire about membership in the society, please visit waring.library.musc.edu.