JOHNNY ROBINSON: Doc Jones and Dental Anatomy Class

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“Note to incoming dental students: You are expected to collect a quantity of extracted teeth from your local practitioners for use in Dental Anatomy class. Enough teeth to fill a large jar or two should be sufficient.”

The initial year or so of a young dental student’s education primarily consists of tackling science classes such as Gross Anatomy, Biochemistry, Neuroanatomy, Histology, and others. The first dental-specific class to be encountered, when I was in school anyway, was the age-old classic, Dental Anatomy.

The goal of the class was to convey an intimate knowledge of the different teeth and their intricate morphology.

The human dentition consists of thirty-two permanent teeth, and they’re all amazingly different. Even groups of similar teeth such as, say, molars or canines, vary from each other with reference to things like cusp shape and slope, developmental groove patterns, and subtle features of their roots. It’s marvelous really. So besides becoming knowledgeable about the fine points of tooth morphology, the student was bound to gain a good ol’ fashioned appreciation for it all too.

You can tell what diet an animal is adapted to consuming by studying its teeth. A big time predator, like a tiger or a shark, for example, has lots of large sharp teeth, ideal for tearing into the flesh of other animals. A ruminating mammal such as a goat has only grinding teeth, adapted to its plant-eating existence. The human, on the other hand, is evolutionarily a scavenger, an opportunistic eater, an omnivore. Therefore, its teeth are adapted to handle most anything. The great variety found among individual human teeth is downright spectacular, and one of the reasons why dental anatomy class is so challenging and interesting.

Dr. Clarence Jones -everybody called him “Doc Jones”- ran the dental anatomy class during my dental school days, and he ran it with an iron hand.

Doc Jones was an interesting character. He was more than a little scary-looking with his seldom-trimmed grey beard covering his rough face and reaching like kudzoo down his neck. And his piercing dark eyes could bore holes through the hopeful façade of most any innocent young dental student. On top of that, he had a gruff and unfriendly manner and he rarely smiled. Oh, and he was mean too.

Beyond all that though, beneath his rough and mean exterior, beat the heart of a devoted teacher. I think ol’ Doc Jones lived for teaching Dental Anatomy. He tried hard to teach us well, and was always meticulously fair in his dealings with his students. I actually liked him, intimidating weirdness and all. The fact that he liked my big sister, who had paved the way in dental school for me a few years before, I think may have smoothed the sailing between him and me.

Dental Anatomy class was not just about lectures and textbooks and studying. It also involved learning in three dimensions, manual dexterity, and skill development of hand-eye coordination. And that element of the class could be put under the heading “carving teeth.” That is, creating wax copies of actual teeth.

We called it carving, but technically it was a combination of subtractive and additive sculpture. We started out with a block of hard white wax and carved away with various instruments including the “green-handled knife.” For over a hundred years dentists have had in their kit a laboratory knife with a stubby wooden handle that was always painted green. The one-inch blade was all purpose, good for carving wax or scraping plaster.

The additive part of the tooth “sculpture” was performed using various wax-adding instruments. It involved a small cache of additional wax and required the use of a Bunsen burner to soften it. As one can imagine, addition of wax in various areas helped produce elegant convex curves in the sculpted tooth, convexity which was too easily carved flat using the subtractive methods alone.

One of the more vital instruments used in the art of carving teeth was a Boley gauge, a tiny and precise set of measuring calipers. To get the dimensions on a carved tooth correct one was forever checking it with the Boley gauge. Not unlike Michelangelo working on his “David,” I’m sure.

Every Friday in the class there would be a practical exam, which consisted of carving a replica of a particular tooth from yet another block of wax. The tooth in question, whether for example an upper second molar or a lower left canine, would have been one of the subjects of study in the previous week. The real tooth to be replicated was supplied by the student, picked from his or her motley assortment of them.

For the practical we were given a certain amount of time, exactly, to get the job done. When happy with the result or out of time – the latter being far more likely – the enlivened student would place his or her sculpted tooth, along with its model, into a diminutive envelope and deliver it to Doc Jones’ desk.

“Five minutes, ladies and gentlemen, five minutes.” Such was the warning Doc Jones calmly made over the laboratory loudspeaker as the time clock ticked down. For many a sweaty-handed student those words struck fear into already palpitating hearts. The carved wax teeth had to find their way to the small box on Doc Jones’ desk before the final bell rang, or suffer instantly a failing grade.

Students would hurriedly apply finishing touches -even if they weren’t exactly finished- and spit and polish the wax surface in a vain attempt to disguise less than ideal results. Some unfortunate wretch might have even been trying to “weld” a broken wax root back together at the last minute.

As the excitement level grew as the time limit approached, the blue-tipped flames of the Bunsen burners echoed the passion of their users. Students would be running willy-nilly through the lab, and many a carved tooth just barely made it into the box before the bell rang and Doc Jones’ big hairy hand closed the lid.

Whew, Doc Jones’ Dental Anatomy class was nerve-wracking at times, and a bit comical when revisited from afar, but it sure sharpened my appreciation for teeth and dentistry in general; a love and respect which would last my entire career.

That class also made me appreciate further the value of five minutes.

– Johnny Robinson