Lincoln’s Dental Museum shows off historic artifacts

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September 10th, 2012

Omaha, NE – Thousands upon thousands of dental artifacts are on display in Lincoln this week: old-fashioned dentistry cabinets, hand-powered drills and even frozen-in-time Roman dental tools excavated from Pompeii.

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Lincoln is known for its peculiar museums. There’s a roller skating museum – which contains a large collection of roller skates dating back to the early 1800s. There’s a telephone museum, a gas pump museum (or collection – they’re housed in a gas station) and even a “Museum of the Odd.” And this week, Nebraskans can take their annual look at another: UNMC’ College of Dentistry’s Dental Museum.

UNMC’s College of Dentistry will host its Dental Museum open house Sept. 10-15 in Lincoln. (Photo courtesy UNMC)

“Our dental museum is so large that we do not have a permanent home for it,” said Dr. Stan Harn, the curator of the exhibit and a professor of oral biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. “So every year, we pull out the collection and we set it up in the College of Dentistry…So one week it’s an anatomy lab, and the next week it is a museum.”

Harn said there are several dental museums around the country, including a national museum in Baltimore, Maryland. But his collection, he said, is one of the largest and includes “thousands upon thousands” of artifacts dating back to the Roman era, including a few excavated from the Roman city of Pompeii. That’s the city near Naples that was covered in volcanic ash almost two thousand years ago. The ash preserved its residents, artifacts and its dental tools, some of which were sophisticated. “The Romans were quite ingenious,” Harn said. “They were able to do a lot of things, even put gold in teeth… I can show you an obstetrical forceps that was used, a Roman instrument, that’s not that much different than what is used today.”

The collection is focused on dental history beginning in the 1850s, when Nebraska became home to the state’s first dentist. (Photo courtesy UNMC)

Other instruments show the vast difference in modern dentistry to dentistry of earlier times, such as the 1800s or 1900s, when the pain medication was nominal and the instruments were slow. And bulky. Like the old-fashioned drills. Those on display include one that required a hand crank to get the drill to turn. Others were whirled into motion by the dentist twirling his fingers back and forth. Others required a foot pedal pump to get the drill stirring. And it stirred very slowly. At a rate of couple hundred or a thousand rpms, Harn said, compared to today’s 200,000.

“But that just shows you the advancement that we have,” Harn said. “Because today, a dentist is trying to give you a pain-free atmosphere, and we’ve had to come a long way to get to that point.”

“The same is true in medicine,” he added. “Can you imagine in the old Civil War times, when they had to saw off a leg during the Civil War? Those weren’t pretty instruments they used.”

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