‘Painless Parker: part dentist, part show man’

June 23rd, 2015

A recent article published on the BBC news website detailed the life and times of ‘Painless Parker’. Almost forgotten in this day and age, Parker is described as a ‘pioneer of modern dentistry’, who mixed the dental care he provided with ‘relentless showmanship’. So who was Painless Parker, and how did he get that name?

Parker started off much like any other dentist. He worked ethically and had dozens of offices spread over a wide geographical area. However as the number of dentists increased, there was more competition for business, and Parker needed to find a way to stand out. Pretty soon after, he hatched a plan, and set up shop in a nearby town where he offered to extract anyone’s tooth painlessly for just 50 cents. Confident in his promise he offered $5 to patients who weren’t satisfied. This may sound like a risky plan, but Parker had a hidden weapon ready to use: he injected patients with watered cocaine, which he called ‘hydrocaine’. This certainly ensured all extractions were painless and Parker soon established himself as a well-known travelling dentist, extracting teeth wherever he went.

Years later, on moving to New York, Parker set up with William Beebe (a former employee of PT Barnum). They created an ‘act’ and took to the road, advertising Parker and his amazing tooth extraction skills. Complete with a musician or brass band, the duo gave a speech to entice customers on the busy streets of New York, and soon had plenty of customers and spectators watching Parker at work. They even had a bucket full of extracted teeth at hand ready for people to see.

Parker and Beebe had numerous brushes with the law courts, not so much related to the dentistry (Parker’s proficiency went without question), but due to their advertising and legitimacy. The pricing of treatment was also questioned, though Parker always kept his prices affordable for clients.

Following Beebe’s death, Parker needed to rethink his approach, and after several attempts to re-establish himself he finally got back on track. Parker set up the Institute of Dental Economics partially as a training academy, but also to help him fight his numerous legal battles with California State Dental Association. In 1913, Parker’s practice took a more light hearted turn: he purchased a travelling circus and became the ringmaster. Complete with animals and a wide array of performers, Parker continued to painlessly extract teeth. Rumour has it that on a particularly productive day he managed to extract over 350 teeth.

Today, Parker is largely forgotten outside of California. However his biggest office in Los Angeles still operates as a dental practice. A large billboard of a smiling face can be seen on the roof. It is said to have changed very little from when it opened in 1906. The current owner, Dr Jong M Lee, says he has never had to advertise: many of his patients are relatives of those treated by Parker.

And the name? Although he originally nicknamed himself as Painless Parker, in 1915 Parker legally changed his name to this. Authorities in California had dictated that dentists must practice under their legal name, which Parker adamantly opposed. He subsequently went through legal proceedings to ensure he could continue to practice under his chosen name, believing that this ruling had been deliberately aimed at him.

Painless Parker may be long gone, but it is evident that his practise was well esteemed, and that his mixture of dentistry and showmanship was very well received by all who came across him in their quest for a pain-free smile. I’m still not sure I’d let a circus ringmaster near my teeth though!

For the full BBC article, please follow this link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-31704287

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