GUEST CURATOR: Aidan Griffin
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“MICHEAL POREE, SURGEON DENTIST.”
The professions of surgeon, dentist, and barber were once the same. The familiar rotating pole of red and white symbolizes their past. However, Michael Poree only advertises as a dentist in the New-York Journal.
His advertisement made me wonder about the differences between medicine, especially surgery, in early America and today. Surgeries are conducted frequently today because anesthesia is available, but that was not the case in colonial America. Another reason why surgeries were conducted infrequently was because doctors did not know as much about what was inside the human body. Giles Firmin, an English surgeon and dentist who arrived in Massachusetts in 1630 believed that better understanding was necessary. According to William C. Wigglesworth, “Firmin’s insistence on the necessity of accurate anatomic knowledge led him, in 1647, to argue that the General Court should pass a resolution providing that ‘such as studies of physic or chirugery may have liberty to reade anatomy, and to anatomize once in foure years some malefactor in case there be such, as the Court shall afford.’ Nevertheless, not until 1834 would the General Court legalize dissections of unclaimed bodies, at the urging of the Massachusetts Medical Society.” To learn more, visit “Surgery in Massachusetts, 1620-1800.”
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
Michael Poree, a surgeon dentist, offered a variety of services “to remedy the various complaints incidental to the teeth and gums” in his advertisement in the supplement that accompanied the April 6, 1769, edition of the New-York Journal. Yet those services may not have been the primary source of his income. He devoted far more space in his notice to hawking patent medicines, some of them related to dentistry but others intended for other afflictions.
One “PREPARATION” that he sold had multiple purposes, as did many other patent medicines promoted in eighteenth-century newspaper advertisements. Poree recommended it “for cleaning and preserving the teeth and gums,” but also noted that it cured scurvy. He peddled another “potion” that he trumpeted as “excellent for curing all disorders in the mouth, eradicating every degree of scurvy in the gums; preserving the teeth from decaying, and rendering them beautiful, white and sound.” The surgeon dentist had an eye for the cosmetic aspects of his occupation. In addition to helping patients maintain teeth that were white and beautiful, he promised that his artificial teeth “appear as well … as real teeth.”
Poree also attempted to enhance his own authority as both a surgeon dentist and, especially, a purveyor of patent medicines by invoking his relationship with a doctor who had achieved some renown in the region. Dr. Forget had attracted so many patients in Philadelphia that it “prevents his visiting the different parts of North-America,” a situation that allowed Poree to serve as Forget’s surrogate in New York. The doctor had sent to him “some general medicines” to sell to patients who were not able to travel to Philadelphia. These included “an apozem” or infusion for combatting a variety of fevers, “a potion for removing all obstructions of the viscera and womb,” and “a water” or tincture for “every disorder of the eyes” that made surgery unnecessary.
When it came to surgery, Poree specialized in dentistry, but he expanded his practice by selling patent medicines for maladies beyond those that affected the teeth and gums. As he dispensed preparations, apozems, potions, and waters, he likely consulted with patients and clients on a broad range of medical concerns. The nota bene that concluded his advertisement also suggests that he referred people to Forget for situations that were too far beyond his own area of expertise. Yet he first attempted to capture as much of the market for medical attention as possible by selling patent medicines in addition to providing his services as surgeon dentist.