Painless Parker: Part dentist, part showman, all American

Image source, Kornberg School of Dentistry
Image caption,
Parker wore this necklace to advertise his skill at extraction

A pioneer of modern dentistry mixed showmanship with medical knowledge. Writer James Bartlett remembers the legacy of Painless Parker.

You might not look twice at the name on the gravestone in Saratoga, California - Edgar Randolph Parker. His daughter made sure it offered no clues to his alter-ego, "Painless" Parker, the most famous dentist in America.

I came across Parker while researching a book about how the idea of "bad teeth" and dentistry came to the masses. Parker's insistence on high-quality dental care and his relentless showmanship played a big part of this shift - but he's almost forgotten now. Only one obscure book by two dentists has been written about his life - The Early Adventures of Painless Parker, by Peter M Pronych and Arden G Christen.

It wasn't just a nickname. In 1915 he legally changed his name to Painless Parker, just so he could continue to practise after California insisted dentists work under their legal title. Parker felt it was deliberately aimed at him and opposed it vociferously.

Over his career, Parker had dozens of offices spread between Utah, California, Oregon, New York, Idaho, Colorado and Washington state, but he began his career in New Brunswick, his hometown province.

At the time he favoured what was known as the "ethical" route - he didn't solicit for customers. But check-ups weren't a regular occurrence for most people at the time. With other dentists already in town - and the ever-present fear-of-pain factor - he soon faced an empty chair.

Desperate, he rented a room in a nearby town and took to the street corner. He talked about dental health and then, armed with a syringe of watered cocaine he christened "hydrocaine", said he'd extract anyone's tooth for 50 cents.

Image source, Kornberg School of Dentistry

He promised extraction would be completely painless, and offered $5 if the patient wasn't satisfied.

Unsurprisingly, the narcotic did its job, and soon he was making money as a travelling dentist, borrowing a rocking chair for his patients wherever he went.

Some years later he and his family moved to New York, where he struggled again, until he met William Beebe, a former employee of PT Barnum. Together they planned to do the unthinkable - brazenly advertise Parker and his skills, and take the act on the road.

Out on the bustling streets, a musician or brass band would play to draw attention - it also provided great cover for patient screams. Parker would give his well-practised speech and offer to treat anyone.

Customers soon filled his expanding offices, so he commissioned a "Paris Trap" , a horse-drawn flatbed with a dentist's chair, for his shows, and kept his ever-filling bucket of teeth close at hand for people to see.

Despite his undoubted dental proficiency, his maverick showmanship saw him endlessly dismissed as a quack and a charlatan. He regularly fought in the courts against limits on advertising, his legitimacy and "ethics", but also against overcharging and monopolies - Parker always kept his prices affordable for poor clients.

Image source, Kornberg School of Dentistry

After Beebe's sudden death Parker moved to California, briefly considering an early retirement. But he bought up a shabby dentist's office in Los Angeles and was soon building more.

The West Coast establishment didn't welcome his ways either. He eventually set up the Institute of Dental Economics to train dentists and fight his many legal battles with the California State Dental Association.

He also eschewed an office full of "costly rugs and pictures" in favour of new technology, and offered mouthwashes, toothpastes and powders for brushing at home.

In 1913 Parker bought a travelling circus and became ringmaster. On one notable day he claimed to have extracted over 350 teeth, while non-patients could see the elephants, watch the performers, or ogle the tattooed lady.

As Parker expanded in California and across the western US, he gave up smoking and drinking - but the showman remained. He treated a hippo called Lucas, performed at a theme park in Long Beach, and was snapped with celebrities - and all the while still advertising relentlessly.

Eventually, concerns about bacteria and sterilisation led Parker to give up his sidewalk demonstrations - which he switched out for screening educational films about oral care in his office. Interested crowds were then invited to come next door for a free check-up, of course.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Bob Hope starred in a movie loosely based on Painless Parker's life

In 1948, a few years before Parker died, Bob Hope played hapless dentist Peter "Painless" Potter alongside Jane Russell in Paleface, a Western comedy that was loosely based on some incidents in Parker's early life. Parker of course loved the movie - and the publicity.

Today Parker's still a star at the small Historical Dental Museum at his alma mater, Temple University, but he's largely forgotten outside California.

But his biggest office, on the corner of 7th and Main in Los Angeles, still operates as a dental practice. Naturally, there's a large billboard of a smiling face on the roof.

With two entrances, nine treatment rooms, a lab full of teeth moulds, x-ray and dark rooms, reception, offices, staff rooms, waiting rooms and endless half-empty storage spaces, it has changed little since it opened in 1906.

Though he had other offices across town, this one was purpose-built by Parker as a "one stop shop", says Dr Jong M Lee, the current owner.

Lee took over the office from another dentist, but he says many of his patients are relatives of those who were treated by Parker. It's meant he's never had to advertise. In fact, Lee only put up the large billboard in 2007 in advance of some building upgrades.

Image caption,
Painless Parker's office is still a dental practice

Lee apologises, insisting that I look around the building as he gets back to his patients. Walking down the long corridors, I make a closer inspection of some unusual skylights and several gorgeous amber-coloured windows that look like stained glass, tucked away between two rooms.

Then I see a wall clock that's so ancient Parker may have tallied his pocket watch to it, and it's out through the double doors into the main waiting area, past the obligatory aquarium with tropical fish, and out onto the bustling streets.

High above, the billboard's shiny white teeth and ruby red lips suggest I call or "Just Come In".

Painless Parker would approve.