The College of Physicians of Philadelphia Digital Library

Tooth Key

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Tooth Key


Tooth Extraction
Barber Surgeons
Medical History, 19th Cent.


An infected tooth in the pre-antibiotic era could be fatal. The easiest way to treat a sore or infected tooth was to pull it. Before local anesthetics were available, the operation needed to be quick. This tooth key was one instrument that a dentist or barber-surgeon could use to apply a great deal of force quickly in order to extract a tooth.

Unfortunately, the operation frequently led to unwanted outcomes; as one doctor wrote, use of the key often meant that “the gums are not unfrequently crushed, and the tooth not rarely broken,” and led to “splintering of the jaw, with exfoliation and necrosis, … inflammation, and extensive abscesses” (Henry Gilbert, On the Extraction of Teeth, 1849).

Here is a description of how a tooth key was used: “In the application of this instrument…the operator passes the point of the claw as low down upon [the tooth] as possible, and keeps it there with the forefinger of his left hand, while, with his right hand, he is placing the fulcrum…so low that the middle part of it which is most convex may press against the gum, almost opposite the points of the fangs which will facilitate the escape of the tooth. The pressure of the fulcrum against the jaw so low will sufficiently secure the lower part of the sockets without preventing the upper from yielding a little for the escape of the tooth. The operator now gradually and steadily turns the instrument, and, in a turn of about 45 degrees, most likely the tooth will be raised” (Willam Jardine, An Essay Towards the Improvement of Some of the Important Instruments in Surgery, 1814).


Digitized by the Mütter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia








19th Century

Original Format



“Tooth Key,” The College of Physicians of Philadelphia Digital Library, accessed May 16, 2021,