Needham History: Yikes! That’s Gotta Hurt!

It’s painful just to look at it.

Dr. Albert E. Miller and his wife Dr. Vesta Miller extracting a tooth. The photo is a studio cabinet portrait (not a genuine extraction), possibly to advertise their medical practices.

Yikes! That has GOT to Hurt!

Admit it – you hate going to the dentist. You think that they are going to do something gruesome, and that it will be painful. But really, we are just a bunch of snowflakes compared to our forebears, and our dentists are gentle and kind.

This was less true before 1900. Dentists were still kind and gentle, but their medial options were more limited, and the whole process was a lot more painful.

Without going into the whole story of dentistry or dental anesthetic, the basic method of tooth extraction ever since teeth began was to grab, twist, and pull. Tools to do this became more specialized, especially in the 19th century, but the essential method was the same. Pain mitigation options were basically opium (used for this purpose since Hammurabi’s day) or a good stiff shot of whiskey. In 1847, American dentist Horace Wells first demonstrated the use of nitrous oxide as a dental anesthetic, but the patient reported feeling some pain, so the demonstration was not considered a success. By the 1880s, cocaine was the painkiller of choice, until Novocaine was discovered in 1904. Rapid improvements in the first half of the 20th century, due largely to wartime needs, have brought us to the current situation, with a wide array of specialized tools and drugs.

So, what are those two people in the photo doing to that poor woman? Those two people are Dr. Albert E. Miller, and his wife Dr. Vesta Miller, Needham physicians, and they are extracting that poor woman’s tooth. The Millers appear to be using a tool called the dental key or “tooth key” – so called because it resembled a door key. The “claws” were clamped around the tooth, and the key was rotated until the tooth became loose or broke apart, whichever came first. The potential for additional damage to the gum and jawbone was fairly high, so the tooth key was mostly replaced by forceps after the late 19th century.

Albert Ebur Miller (1831-1913) was born in Covert, N.Y. At the age of nineteen, he studied law with a judge in New York. A year later he began studying medicine and graduated from the Syracuse Medical College (1855) and from the University of Pennsylvania (1864), specializing in surgery and lung diseases. He and his wife, Dr. Vesta Miller moved to Needham in 1876 and opened their practices. He taught at the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Boston, and traveled extensively delivering lectures throughout the country. Albert also held many positions in Needham, including President of the Needham Cooperative Bank, the Board of the Public Library, the Water Committee, president of the Union Temperance Band, and vice-president of the Massachusetts Total Abstinence Society. He was on the medical staff of the DeMolay Commandery of Knights Templars. He also was a residential home developer in Needham, and his Nehoiden Land Company developed house lots in the Kimball Street/Dedham Avenue/Grant Street area in the 1890s.

Vesta Delphine Miller (1844-1908) was born in Ketchumville, NY. She practiced medicine at a time when very few women were doctors. Her father was a teacher and her mother a member of the clergy. She started out as a teacher in the public schools – at the very young age of 16 – but her main interest was medicine. She attended the New England Female Medical College in Boston, and the Medical College of Ohio in Cincinnati. She received her MD from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Boston, and then attended the New York Postgraduate School of Medicine, where she received special training in surgery and the treatment of diseases of women. She practiced medicine as a specialist for women (OB/GYN) and children for more than 30 years. Like her husband, she was also strongly devoted to the cause of temperance, and was president of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union in Needham from its founding in 1886 until her death in 1908. The small pocket park where Harris Avenue runs into Dedham Avenue is near their former home, and is called Vesta Park in her honor.

When the Millers opened their practices, Needham had just lost its long-time doctor, Josiah Noyes (I wrote about Noyes’ botany collections a couple of weeks ago). The Millers had offices in Boston on Tremont Street, where they held hours on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Their large Victorian home on Dedham Avenue (currently 90 Dedham Ave) also served as their in-town office, where they held office hours on the other days of the week. They had built the house in 1878, two years after they arrived in town. They were well-regarded for both their medicine and their social work, and maintained their successful practices in town for several decades.

Of course, no actual teeth are being extracted in this picture. Dental action shots were not feasible when this photo was taken. The two Drs. Miller and their ‘patient’ are posing for a cabinet photo in a photographer’s studio. The photo is undated, but the hooped bell skirt looks closer to 1870 than 1880 (fashion historians – opinions welcome!) Such a photo could have been taken for a number of reasons, but the one that comes most quickly to mind is to advertise their new Needham practice.

Clearly it did not scare their patients away. Our ancestors were made of sterner stuff.

An array of dental tools from a German medical supply catalogue, c. 1790. The evil-looking little tool in the inset is a dental key, or tooth key (including claws of different sizes), used for clamping and pulling teeth. The tooth key is in the History Center collections, and had probably belonged to an earlier Needham physician, Josiah Noyes.

Gloria Polizzotti Greis is the Executive Director of the Needham History Center & Museum. For more information, please see their website at
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