Warning: Spoilers for the show The Knick
If you haven’t been watching the new Cinemax show with Clive Owen called The Knick, you should, because it’s awesome. The show is about an early 1900s New York City hospital and follows the personal and professional lives of the staff. What does this have to do with pulling teeth, you might ask? We’re getting there.
In one episode of the show, one of the show’s doctors Dr. Everett Gallinger enters a room in a mental asylum to find his wife, who has been admitted. Sadly, Gallinger’s wife is in this predicament because earlier on in the show, the couple’s baby died. To replace the loss, Dr. Gallinger brought home an orphaned girl. Clearly, his wife did not react well to this, and drowned the young girl in a bath.
Let’s just say, early 20th century insane asylums are NOT what they are today — especially the treatments. When Dr. Gillinger finds his wife in the asylum, her teeth have been removed by the head doctor — all of them. According to the woman’s doctor on the show, “‘all mental disorders stem from disease and infection of the brain.’” By pulling the woman’s teeth, he is curing her of her ‘madness’ — or so he thinks.
“If the teeth don’t fix it, he tells Gallinger, he’s next going to remove her tonsils, then her adenoids, and possibly her colon” according to The Atlantic. The asylum’s doctor, Henry Cotton, is based on a real life character — a psychiatrist and medical director of New Jersey State Lunatic Asylum from 1907 and 1930, which is now the Trenton Psychiatric Hospital.
Dr. Henry Cotton believed that “insanity was the result of untreated infections in the body, and to treat them he directed his dental and medical staff to practice ‘surgical bacteriology’ on the patients.” [Wikipedia]
Dr. Cotton practiced his theory of infection-based psychological disorders by first, pulling patients’ teeth out. Teeth were at the time “suspected of harboring infections.” If this didn’t cure the patient, he would look to the tonsils and sinuses. Next, he would move on to pulling out significant organs, not stopping short of the testicles, ovaries, gall bladder, stomach, spleen, cervix, and colon.
A bit extreme, no? Dr. Cotton over his career supposedly removed more than 11,000 teeth, including those of his wife and children “as a precautionary measure” as stated in The Atlantic. Amazingly, Cotton was regarded as a leader in his field at the time, even though many of his patients would die on the operating table, as antibiotics did not exist yet.
Of course, today the idea of this medical theory being practiced is unlawful and unethical. But, in the early 1900s, no other cures were known for psychiatric disorders. Sadly, Dr. Cotton eventually started thinking he was losing his mind himself, and he resorted to pulling his own teeth out. He died of a heart attack in 1933.
Don’t let this deter you from watching The Knick, a truly fascinating and somewhat historically accurate show about the state of healthcare at the turn of the century.
Dr. Coleman is a leading cosmetic dentist in the United States, as well as an international lecturer in dental techniques and technology. With a great sense of humor and a sense of compassion for others, Dr. Coleman takes pride in improving the lives and smiles of his patients. To learn more about Dr. Coleman or his practice, visit his Facebook and Twitter pages!