For those undertaking a guided tour of the Whanganui Regional Museum's basement collection stores, there are things both strange and wonderful to see. Some are scary but the greatest fear reaction is very often at the sight of the dentist's chair and old dental equipment.
Throughout history, dental treatment has had an element of hit and miss. You suffered, you got someone to yank out your aching tooth and you hoped you wouldn't have to undergo a similar action any time soon.
In New Zealand, from 1923, dental treatment for children was provided by a dental nurse ensconced in her clinic in the school grounds. Any pupil could be summoned to her by the appearance of a messenger in class with a note to attend straightaway. The equipment was basic. The chair was upright, and the drill was treadle-powered by the nurse's foot. There were no injections to alleviate pain. The best thing about it was the drop of mercury in a little container for the patient to take home to play with.
In dental surgeries nowadays the patient lies prone but is tilted back further and then raised up. There are powerful lights above and the dentist may also wear a light in a headpiece, like a miner. All is gleaming metal. There is a dental assistant nearby to hand out anything required from the rows of instruments set out ready. These are sharp and look very efficient, in vivid contrast to the extraction pliers illustrated here.
Used by TW Owen, a farmer in the Upokongaro area, they were kept specially to pull out the teeth of any neighbours who suffered from toothache. Ghastly though this seems, they performed an important societal function and have found their place in the museum's collection.
Back in the surgery all is action, calm, speed and piped music. Pain relief comes via a quick-acting injection. Here is a tip: do not chew the inside of your lip when it is still numb.
So, what's it like to be a dentist now? Go and talk to one. Ideally, you should start in secondary school with science subjects, especially maths, chemistry, physics, biology and health education. A capacity for empathy, an eye for detail and hands that are sensitive, delicate and strong are good. The mouth is such a small area in which to work.
To apply for training you need to contact the Faculty of Dentistry at the University of Otago in Dunedin. Each student must complete health sciences to a high standard in year one and, if selected, there are four further years of study.
When qualified, dentists can, at the least, examine and diagnose problems, order x-rays, carry out fillings, extractions, crowns and bridges, dentures and root canals.
Opportunities for specialisation are many, including maxillofacial reconstructive surgery for defects in babies and after accidents or sports injuries. Endodontics and cosmetic treatments, including implants, veneers and corrective braces, are important. Skills may even include providing forensic evidence for identification purposes in law.
Specialisation in any field leads of course to another aspect of dentistry: the costs to the patient. Why is the dentist so expensive? Dental practices are privately run and not supported by Government, other than through free treatment for children up to the age of 18.
Each private practice depends upon the team: the dentists, of course, who are paid according to their experience, the dental assistants, the dental hygienists, the dental technicians and the receptionists. Add in provision for all the overheads and the state-of-the-art equipment. For instance, it is approximately $70,000 for a dental chair and $2000 each for drills. X-ray machines can cost more than $40,000 or $50,000.
So, what is the best advice about going to the dentist? Look after your pearly whites, keep up with regular checks - and don't have that second chocolate!
* Mary Laurenson is an archives volunteer at the Whanganui Regional Museum.