Painless Parker: The Showman Dentist

Jul 27, 2022 0 comments

At the Temple University's dental museum in Philadelphia, there is a small section dedicated to one of the most notorious dentist of America—a so called “Painless Parker,” who claimed that his tooth extraction procedure was so painless that he would willingly refund ten times his fees if the operation caused any pain. In fact, the moniker “Painless” wasn’t just a nickname; he had legally changed his name to Painless Parker. The truth was anything but.

A necklace of extracted teeth that Painless Parker wore when he went to work.

A necklace of extracted teeth that Painless Parker wore when he went to work.

Painless Parker was born Edgar Randolph Parker in Tynemouth Creek, New Brunswick in 1872. Edger showed evidence of being a natural born salesman from a very young age. At the age of 7, he sold the school playground to a fellow classmate for 20 cents. At age 9, Edgar bartered with a neighbor to obtain a hen, eggs, and a chicken coop, with plans to become a chicken farmer. Edgar was rebellious and mischievous. He often feigned illness so that he could skip school. Once he acquired a wagon and a horse and became a street peddler selling trinkets. His father did not approve of Edgar’s peddling and sold off his wagon. In protest, Edgar left home and signed on to one if his uncle’s ships heading to Barbados.

While at sea, Edgar sustained an injury and ended up in hospital in Buenos Aires. Having spent the entire summer in the hospital, Edgar began to appreciate the kind of work doctors did and decided to become a doctor himself. Because his mother was a devout Christian and did not believe in medicine, Edgar choose a career in dentistry. He liked the idea that he might be able to save people the type of pain that his mother had endured over a period of time with an impacted wisdom tooth.

Edgar Randolph Parker

In 1889, Parker enrolled in the New York College of Dentistry. In order to support himself financially, he performed door to door dentistry and set up an office shortly after taking admission. This was a violation of college policy, and Parker was expelled from the college. The same year, he attended the Philadelphia Dental College (now the Temple University’s Kornberg School of Dentistry), graduating in 1892 at the age of twenty. Parker was a poor student, and he only graduated because he pleaded with his dean to pass him. After the dean did, Parker moved home to Canada to start work as a dentist.

At that time, it was considered unethical in the profession to solicit patients. He could join clubs and he could be active in the community endeavors but he should never directly ask for patients business. After 6 weeks without seeing a single patient, Parker decided to toss ethics aside and started 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.”

Full page newspaper ad for the West Coast dental practice.

Full page newspaper ad for the West Coast dental practice.

Parker set up shop at a street corner, and talked about horrors of tooth decay to attract customers. Parker promised extraction would be completely painless, and offered $5 if the patient wasn't satisfied. He concocted a solution of cocaine and water, that he called “hydrocaine” to numb the pain. Surprisingly, the narcotic did its job, and soon parker was making money as a travelling dentist, extracting tooth for 50 cents.

Some years later Parker and his family moved to New York, where he met William Beebe, a former employee of PT Barnum’s circus. Beebe advised Parker to take the act to the road, just like Barnum did, and accordingly Parker launched the Parker Dental Circus, a traveling medicine show. He would start the show with a few facts about oral hygiene, then invite a volunteer from the crowd up to the stage. A stooge already planted among the crowd would step up and Parker would pretend to pull out a molar from the fake volunteer’s mouth, who would admit the operation was painless. When a real patient would climb on his horse-drawn wagon for the procedure, a band of musicians would start playing their instruments at full blast drowning out the patient’s screams.

Parker was sued many times for his false claims and his lack of ethics, which he fought it out in the courts. In 1930, the dental board of California told Parker that he could no longer call himself “Painless Parker”, and suspended his license for false advertising. So Parker legally changed his name from “Edgar” to “Painless”. His colleagues detested him too—the American Dental Association even called him “a menace to the dignity of the profession.”

Notwithstanding, Parker’s business thrived. On one notable day, he claimed to have pulled 357 teeth in a single day, which he wore on a necklace. He also hired assistants and established a chain dentistry business. At its peak, Parker ran 28 West Coast dental offices, employing over 70 dentists, and grossing $3 million per year. His clinics hawked dental services as well as a line of dental care products such as mouthwashes, toothpastes and powders for brushing at home.

Despite being a huckster, Parker’s contribution to the dental world is undeniable. He believed in inexpensive healthcare and wouldn’t charge for preliminary assessments. He gave out vouchers, allowed patients without means to use credit, and educated the public on the importance of dental hygiene.

“Parker’s most indisputable legacy to the field of dentistry is his contribution, through his bad acts, charlatanism and relentless pursuit of profits, to the development of professional ethics in dentistry,” said, Dr. Amid Ismail, the dean of Kornberg School of Dentistry, Temple University.

Today, a section of the exhibits at the Temple University’s museum is dedicated to Painless Parker. There you can see a selection of tools that Parker used along with the infamous teeth necklace and a bucket full of teeth that Parker extracted throughout his lifetime.

A bucket full of extracted teeth at Temple University’s museum.

A bucket full of extracted teeth at Temple University’s museum.

# Painless Parker – most eccentric dentist, New Brunswick Museum
# Was He Really Painless? Painless Parker, Cupertino News
# Painless Parker: Part dentist, part showman, all American, BBC
# A Brief History of America’s Most Outrageous Dentist, Smithsonian Magazine
# The Strange and Magnificent Painless Parker, Periodontal Associates of Memphis


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