Before local anesthesia could manage the pain, one early 20th century dentist distracted his patients with showgirls and brass bands. Painless Parker found that a bit of the old razzle dazzle not only added enough commotion to keep a person from focusing too much on a tooth pulling, it drew an audience of prospective patients.
Painless Parker was born Edgar R.R. Parker in St. Martins, New Brunswick, Canada in 1872. He came to study dentistry at the Philadelphia Dental College, which would later become the School of Dentistry at Temple University. Parker was a terrible student and only graduated because he pleaded with his dean to pass him. The dean did, and Parker moved home to Canada to start work as a dentist.
But there was a problem. At the time, it was considered unethical in the profession to solicit patients, so Parker found that after six weeks, he still hadn’t seen a single client. He decided to toss ethics to the wayside and start an advertising campaign. In exchange for a new set of dentures, the desperate dentist bartered with a sign maker for a placard that read “Painless Parker.” His business idea was deceptively simple: He would inject patients with a solution of watered-down cocaine and pull their teeth. The 50-cent extraction would be painless, he said, or he’d pay the patient $5.
Having found success with his street corner dentistry, Parker decided to take his show on the road. He hired a former P.T. Barnum manager and created the Parker Dental Circus, which toured around Canada and the U.S with a big band and dancing girls. He drew huge crowds and got a lot of people to agree to having their teeth extracted, which is where the band came in really handy–when they played, you couldn’t hear patients screaming or moaning from the anything-but-painless dentistry they received. At one point, he claimed to have pulled 357 teeth in one day, which he wore on a necklace.
While he pulled the tooth out, still for 50 cents an extraction, Parker would tap his foot on the ground to signal the band to play louder—effectively drowning out the patient’s pained screams. He still used the cocaine solution—but instead of injecting it to numb the mouth, he’d squirt it into the cavity—and that only worked sometimes, if at all. Still, Parker managed to become popular. Dental patients and visitors liked the distraction of the brass band and the rest of the circus. Thanks to the band, no one heard the moans—and everyone but the hapless patient assumed the treatment didn’t hurt a bit.
Other dentists in New York were none too keen on his shenanigans, and called him “a menace to the dignity of the profession.” They drove him out of town, but he set up again in San Francisco in 1912. This wasn’t the end of his troubles, as he was sued for false advertising claims. To sidestep them, Parker changed his name, adding “Painless” to his legal name. When business thrived, he hired assistants and established a chain dentistry business. In the end, Parker ran 28 West Coast dental offices, employing over 70 dentists, and grossing $3 million per year. He could then keep his catchy brand until his death in 1952.
Parker is mentioned in the song “Orange Claw Hammer” byDon Van Vliet. The Historical Dental Museum at the Temple University School of Dentistry has a display dedicated to Parker, with his necklace of 357 teeth and a large wooden bucket filled to the brim with teeth that he had personally pulled. The bucket of teeth sat by his feet as he lectured the crowds on the importance of dental hygiene.