When Painless Parker came to town, the dentist was sure to put on quite a show.
On street corners across the U.S. and Canada in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the scene alone was enough to grab your attention — a chair atop a horse-drawn wagon or stage; a middle-aged man dressed in a top hat, silk shirt, and white lab coat; and a small band ready to play at a moment’s notice.
Edgar Randolph “Painless” Parker typically attracted a big crowd, starting his show with a lecture about the importance of dental hygiene. Then, he made a bold offer: he would extract audience members’ teeth for 50 cents each. If the experience wasn’t pain-free, he said, he would give a $5 refund. One by one, his patients sat in the chair for all to see. Parker numbed their mouth with a cocaine solution before extracting a rotten tooth. The band’s blaring music distracted the patient and, should they scream, drowned out their wails.
Parker launched his dental shows in 1892, at a time when many people largely avoided going to the dentist in fear of the pain it could bring. He performed in numerous cities and turned the act of pulling teeth into a show. Believe It or Not!, the dentist once made a necklace out of 357 teeth he pulled in a single day. The necklace is on display today as part of the Historical Dental Museum Collection at the Temple University Kornberg School of Dentistry.
Parker is often remembered for his uncanny approach to dentistry, but some argue he left an important legacy in the field in other ways you might not expect. The American Dental Association (ADA) once described him as a “menace to the dignity of the profession.” Others view him in a more positive light. So, was he more of an unethical dentist or a patient advocate ahead of his time?
The Early Days
Born in New Brunswick, Canada in 1872, Parker demonstrated a passion for salesmanship at an early age. As a young child, he bartered with a neighbor who gave him a hen and eggs in exchange for fresh fish, according to The Early Adventures of Painless Parker, a biography written from Parker’s perspective based on his writings and memorabilia. Salesmanship became one of Parker’s passions — and one that would serve him well years later as a traveling dentist.
In Parker’s late teenage years, his parents took him to a phrenologist, whom they believed could determine Parker’s mental capabilities by examining the bumps on his skull. The phrenologist said Parker was well suited for a career in dentistry. In 1889, he enrolled at the New York College of Dentistry, today the New York University College of Dentistry. At the time, the dental profession in the U.S. was “not well regulated,” says Dr. Andrew I. Spielman, professor and director of the Rare Book Library and Historical Archives at the NYU College of Dentistry.
Dr. Spielman, who’s also the president of the American Academy of the History of Dentistry, says a vast majority of those in the field at the time were either physicians who also practiced as dentists or simply people who started apprenticeship work with a dentist and then declared themselves open for business. Many lacked formal education and training.
“[They practiced] like a butcher working with someone for several years and, after a while, says, ‘OK, I’m ready now to put up my sign,’” Dr. Spielman says.
Living on tight funds as a student, Parker started going door to door in New York, cleaning people’s teeth for $1-2 and opened an office at just 18 years old, according to the biography. When word got back to the dental school dean that one of his students was practicing without a license, Parker was swiftly expelled.
Parker spent that summer as a traveling dentist in rural neighborhoods of New Brunswick, saving up enough money to enroll in fall 1890 in the Philadelphia Dental College, now the Temple University Maurice H. Kornberg School of Dentistry. There, the dean nearly refused to pass him but ultimately decided to give him a chance. So in 1892, Parker returned home to officially launch his career.
The Spark of an Idea
After setting up his practice in St. Martins, New Brunswick, Parker was disappointed when he attracted just a few patients. In those days, it was rare to go to the dentist for anything aside from a bothersome tooth.
Physicians and even barbers sometimes pulled teeth, and they were known to break some in the process. Many people didn’t understand that poor dental hygiene could have lasting consequences on their health.
In dentistry’s early days, “People avoided dentists as dentists were considered synonymous with pain,” says Parker’s biography co-author Dr. Peter Pronych, a retired dentist who once served on the Faculty of Dentistry at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada, and has researched and written extensively about Parker’s life with Dr. Arden G. Christen, Professor Emeritus at the Indiana University School of Dentistry. Novocain, which is widely used today, wasn’t invented until around 1905. Dr. Pronych says many early dentists instead used nitrous oxide (laughing gas) — or just a strong shot of booze — to ease the pain.
Parker had also recalled reading a published paper about the use of “local anesthetics.” The paper mentioned a diluted cocaine solution that could reduce pain during tooth extractions. Parker’s friend George Mallory, a druggist, helped him prepare the formula for what they referred to as “hydrocaine,” according to The Early Adventures of Painless Parker. They tested the solution on a dog and then each other by injecting the hydrocaine into tiny incisions in their gums. To their excitement — success! It really worked.
Sporting a newfound confidence, Parker believed that if people understood the importance of caring for their teeth, they would make an effort to improve their oral hygiene. According to The Early Adventures of Painless Parker, one day Parker heard a Salvation Army band marching up his street. A crowd emerged as an officer performed a sermon, and somebody collected money from the impressed onlookers.
It was then that Parker decided he could advertise his service to the public through the spoken word and hold public dental demonstrations. He borrowed a horse-drawn wagon from the hotel where he was staying and blasted a horn to attract a crowd. Parker proceeded to lecture roughly 50 to 60 people about the importance of keeping their teeth clean. He then offered to pull the teeth of audience members for 50 cents and unveiled his planned use of hydrocaine. Parker performed several extractions that night.
Parker’s Dental Shows
After that first show, he spent years traveling through cities and towns across the U.S. and Canada to pull teeth at a low cost in front of audiences. He also offered dental services out of hotel rooms and eventually opened his own offices. It was in New Brunswick, Canada, where Parker first referred to himself as “Painless Parker.” And the name stuck throughout his career and beyond.
When the outdoor extractions began, Parker signaled to the band to play loud music as a distraction for the patient and to cover up their moans. He typically drew a big crowd, largely of lower-income people who could afford his care. Dr. Pronych says he never found a concrete answer as to whether Parker ever actually paid his patients $5 if they said they felt pain. Still, his biography on Parker’s early career states that some patients reported the experience being “almost dreamlike” whereas others complained of extreme pain — and humiliation.
When it was all over, according to the Kornberg School of Dentistry, Parker placed the teeth he pulled in a bucket resting near his feet.
Some accounts of Parker’s career have also claimed that before performing any actual extractions, Parker would call up a pre-selected volunteer to the stage. With a tooth already in hand, Parker would pretend to pull a molar from the volunteer’s mouth, and the volunteer would claim to have felt no pain. (However, Dr. Pronych notes that he didn’t find evidence of this practice in his research.)
Parker attracted the attention of city authorities and local dentists who questioned his motivations and unconventional advertising methods — holding his dental shows, running newspaper ads touting “painless” dentistry, posting large signs, and soliciting patients in his own unique way. Advertising in traditional dentistry was considered inappropriate and unethical at the time, and Parker was sued on several occasions. His obituary in The New York Times states that he “often had his license revoked but for no great duration.”
In 1896, Parker found himself low on money after being run out of several towns in New Brunswick, Canada. He and his family moved to New York, where he met William Beebe, a former employee of the famous showman P.T. Barnum. According to The Early Adventures of Painless Parker, Beebe advised Parker to add a six-piece band, gasoline torches, and sometimes a tumbling act or comedian to his program. He also encouraged Parker to ramp up his advertising. Signs on the sides of buildings spelled out claims like “Proclaimed by Public, Press, and Pulpit!” and “Pains and Pangs Positively Prevented!”
While some other dentists mimicked Parker’s advertising methods, they typically didn’t have outdoor dentistry shows and Parker was, by far, the most famous among them, Dr. Pronych says.
The Celebrity Dentist
By the end of his career, Parker had launched a line of products — toothpaste and mouthwash, among others — with the Painless Parker brand front and center. He eventually made educational films about caring for your teeth and treated the teeth of animals, including a hippopotamus!
Parker attracted so many patients that he opened a chain of dozens of dental offices in the U.S. and Canada. He hired dentists and other staff, employing a system of specialization based on the dentists’ areas of interest and expertise.
In 1913, Parker bought a traveling circus. At The Parker Dental Circus, he’s known to have sat atop an elephant as contortionists, dancing women, and a band performed. (This is the era in which he pulled more than 350 teeth in a single day and turned them into a necklace.)
In 1915, while living in California, the state legislature passed a law that disbarred dentists from practicing using a name other than the one under which they were licensed. Being the showman he was, Parker legally changed his name to Painless Parker so he could continue advertising as such.
For many reasons, Parker’s approach to dentistry was unconventional. He ran into issues with the law and angered more traditional dentists, who said he was unethical in his dental practices and advertising methods.
So, what’s his true legacy? It depends on who you ask.
Dr. Spielman, who feels that Parker ultimately did a “huge disservice” to the profession, says Parker teamed up with “a number of shady characters” (like Beebe) who gave him business acumen and advertising prowess in exchange for the money Parker made for the both of them. “People still talk about him as being reckless and overstepping all boundaries of decency and ethical behavior in a profession that is supposed to be self-governing,” Dr. Spielman says.
Though he was quick and skillful with his hands, “(Parker) acted like a used car salesman in a profession that mandates ethical standards,” Dr. Spielman says, arguing that Painless provided substandard care by not operating out of an office. Parker threw ethics to the wayside when he advertised himself as “painless,” Dr. Spielman adds, because other dentists also had access to certain anesthetics at the time, and he skirted the law by changing his name.
On the other hand, Dr. Pronych views Parker as a patient advocate ahead of his time, rejected by his colleagues for taking a different approach to dentistry. Speaking to Ripley’s, he says, “(Parker) delivered the actual dental care in the same manner and standard as did all of the other dentists of that era except he used advertising outside of the office to draw patients.”
Parker’s approach to dentistry and advertising also allowed him to educate and bring dental treatment to “the poor and regular people in society,” Dr. Pronych adds. He describes Parker as a “controversial pioneer” in dentistry, which is prevalent today, and an influential figure in advertising more broadly.
“More conventional dentists have termed Painless Parker a fraud, a quack, a disgrace to the profession,” reads a 1949 article in Maclean’s, a Canadian magazine. “In his own defense he says that millions who would have neglected their teeth have gone to dentists only because of him.”
Painless Parker’s Legacy
Parker’s actions indirectly led to new legislation and professional ethics in dentistry to curb what many perceived as unethical practices by him and other dentists of his time. Today, dentists are permitted to advertise their practice, but they shouldn’t solicit patients using false or misleading information, according to the ADA’s New Dentist Now blog.
He was also among the first dentists to launch a chain of dental offices, and Dr. Pronych says Parker was a pioneer in having his staff treat patients according to their skill sets.
Facing a barrage of lawsuits and growing awareness about the importance of sterilization, Parker decided to shift his focus in 1920 from his street dentistry shows to the E.R. Parker System, his chain of dental offices. He continued to build his brand, though he toned down his advertisements.
In 1948, Bob Hope played dentist “Painless” Potter in the comedy film The Paleface, with the character inspired by a young Painless Parker but bearing almost no resemblance to his actual life.
As for Parker, he died at 80 years old in 1952 after multiple heart attacks, but his legacy — whether bad, good, or somewhere in between — remains very much alive. As orthodontist Dr. Rolf G. Behrents, editor of the American Journal of Orthodontics and Dentofacial Orthopedics, writes, “He was famous and infamous, a celebrity and a scoundrel, a quack and an innovator, a shameless self-promoter and a patient advocate, and a provocateur and a victim; he was admired and respected, and hated, for what he did and how he did it.”
By Jordan Friedman, contributor for Ripleys.com. Special thanks to The Christen and Pronych Estate Collection and Archives of Painless Parker DDS at Indiana University School of Dentistry Library and Kornberg School of Dentistry at Temple University, who graciously provided the images featured in this article.