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Gardner Colton, Nathan Keep and Painless Dentistry

by Michael Gelinas, Board member- Longmeadow Historical Society- October 2007 Issue

The “west” village of Longmeadow in the early 1800s was like a thousand other New England villages: on the surface it seemed to be a quiet farming village with large extended families, all worshipping at one or two Protestant churches; but this “happy harbor of God's saints,” as one later town minister-historian would put it, belied major demographic changes and the acceleration of out-migration. Too many children, not enough land. Besides, an ever-expanding frontier beckoned to many 5th and 6th generation sons of the original settlers of the 1600s. Two of these sons who left–Gardner Colton and Nathan Keep–played key roles in the development of anesthesia in dental surgery and the professionalization of dental practices. Their lives also reflect many of the patterns of life in America of the 1800s. Gardner Quincy Colton was the tenth son and twelfth child of Deacon Walter Colton. The father was born in Longmeadow and was a fifth generation descendant of George Colton. Walter had moved to Georgia, Vermont (on Lake Champlain) where he lived as a poverty-stricken weaver. It was here that Gardner was born in 1814. ln 1839 he came back to his family's ancestral home to marry Eleanor Pomeroy Colton.

Gardner's early years in Vermont were marked by farm work and a scanty education. At the age of sixteen he was apprenticed to a chair maker in St. Albans, VT, at five dollars a year. As soon as he was twenty-one, he moved to New York City, where he was a journeyman maker of cane-seated chairs. He later briefly studied medicine under Dr. Willard Parker in 1842.

It was while studying medicine that Gardner learned about nitrous oxide inhalation (laughing gas). At the same time, he had become a popular lecturer on scientific subjects. Public adult education was fast becoming a major part of American life, and Gardner benefited from this trend. In 1844 in New York he gave a public demonstration of the effects of nitrous oxide; the gate receipts were $535. Thus encouraged, he went on the lecture circuit. His arrival in Hartford, CT on Dec. 10, 1844 for a demonstration was heralded by an ad in the Hartford Courant. The ad said, among other things, that the gas would be administered only to respectable gentlemen so as to "make the entertainment a genteel affair."  Among those at the lecture and  demonstration that night were Dr. Horace Wells. a dentist practicing in Hartford. And his friend Samuel Cooley. When Colton.called for volunteers, Cooley was one of those responding. The reaction of most people to the gas was laughter, giggling, singing, or dancing. But some people react in a negative way. Cooley began instead to fight, and in the general thrashing around he injured himself with a big gash on the leg. After settling down, Cooley had no memory of any pain. Somehow, Dr. Wells made the mental leap from entertainment to painless surgery for tooth extraction. Thus, one of the key components in the growth of modern dentistry had happened.

In later years, Colton established the Colton Dental Association, and with his partner John Allen, used nitrous oxide in painless extraction of teeth. In one time period (February 1864 to January 1867) two or three teeth were extracted from 17,60 I individuals! The extraction of bad teeth, however, was more of a tradecraft than anything approaching modern medicine and dentistry.

In 1845 in a Boston newspaper appeared the following: “A dentist in Hartford, Connecticut, has adapted the use of nitrous oxide gas in tooth pulling. It is said that after taking this gas the patient feels no pain.” This report on the Colton/Wells event was seen by many Boston area dentists, most likely including Dr. Nathan Keep, a former Longmeadow resident and vigorous advocate of medical training and higher professional standards for dentists, culminating in his pivotal role in founding Harvard Dental School in 1867.

Nathan Cooley Keep was born in 1800 in Longmeadow, the oldest of six children. The family started in Longmeadow (when it was part of Springfield) when John Keep settled in the meadows at mid-century. John and part of the family were killed during King Phillips War in 1675. His son Samuel survived, and after three more generations of Samuels, Nathan was born. He received a basic education in the village school and at the same time exhibited great skill in the use of tools. At the age of sixteen he was apprenticed to a jewelry manufacturer in Newark, New Jersey. At 21 he finished his mechanical education, which would serve him well in a few years in the manufacture of porcelain teeth.

In 1821 Keep went to Boston, enrolled in the Harvard Medical School, and graduated in 1827 with the degree of M.D. For the next forty years he practiced dentistry in Boston, and was renowned for his superior craftsmanship in mechanical dentistry, forerunner to prosthesis. In the Harvard Dental School museum are fine examples of the handcarved porcelain teeth for which he was famous.

One of the key features of American life in the industrializing United States was the movement toward specialization in the field of manufactures and the work force. Along with this came the rise of new professions and the rise of new and higher standards. Dr. Keep was a living example of the two most important influences in dentistry: The formation of dental associations to create and maintain high professional standards, and the establishment of dental schools to provide sound training.

In 1865 the Massachusetts Dental Society was founded and chartered by the Commonwealth to help create and maintain high standards for the profession. Dr. Keep was the first president, and in that capacity led the move to have Harvard Medical School create a chair of dentistry. But after several meetings, it was decided to create an entire dental school as an integral part of Harvard University. Harvard was persuaded by the quality of Keep's reasoning. He argued for the need by dentists for the knowledge of every science and every art. He strongly believed in a united medical and dental education. Dr. Nathan Keep was appointed by Harvard University as the first Dean of the new Dental School, and served as the dean for the next three years.

Anesthesia by inhalation, a new and potentially revolutionary concept, was demonstrated first by a dental technician or mechanic (Gardner Colton), and then applied to more sophisticated dental procedures by more professional dentists like Horace Wells and Nathan Keep. Why dentistry before general surgery by medical doctors? The answer is fairly simple. Surgical operations were nowhere as common as teeth extractions before the invention of general anesthesia. The dentist faced the dilemma of inflicting pain constantly, and thus had a greater and more immediate need for painkillers.

Did Gardner Colton and Nathan Keep ever meet?

Further research is needed to answer that question. But what is certain
is that the ideas of the anesthesiologist and the dentist “met” in the new American world of growing urban centers, new ideas, new industries, and new technology. As Alexis de Tocqueville noted in his Democracy in America, the new country was all in motion. Like so many young people of the early 19th century who had to, or chose to, leave the farms, they were part of a new society where geographic and economic mobility were more and more the norm.

A special thanks to John O. Grippo, D.D.S., for his help in researching this article.

Sources used in preparing this article:
Colton and Keep family histories.
The Story
of Dentistry, History of Harvard Dental School


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