Re-enactor specializes in Colonial dentistry

Care was primitive, not widely available in 18th-century America


Staff Writer

Marjy Wienkop Marjy Wienkop FREEHOLD TOWNSHIP — Marjy Wienkop, a Revolutionary War re-enactor, has become a specialist in 18th century dentistry. She is probably better trained for that trade than were those who were treating people in the 1700s. She, at least, is a dental technician.

According to Wienkop, dentistry was one of the first medical specialties performed in the American colonies, but most practitioners were craftsmen. She is going to discuss her specialty, “Dentistry in America during the Age of Enlightenment,” at the Craig House in Monmouth Battlefield State Park at 2 p.m. Oct. 24.

The Craig House is off Route 9 at Schibanoff Road, approximately 1 mile north of the intersection of Route 9 and Route 33. For further information call (732) 462-9616.

Wienkop makes crowns and bridges for a living at a dental lab in Ewing, Mercer County, where she lives, but she is also a medical historian. She has lectured on Revolutionary War medicine and dentistry and has set up field hospitals.

“I’ve been a re-enactor since 1993. I got into it late, when I was 35,” she said, adding that she has degrees in art. “I taught metal working, welding and sculpture at the Johnson Atelier in Mercerville. That is closed now.”

She has used her metalworking background to recreate nearly all of her surgical and dental instruments. They are all copies of museum pieces or from book plates in original surgical books, she said.

“All of the instruments are reproductions from the sources that I could find on dentistry. Most are metal with black walnut handles,” Wienkop said, noting that she is one of only three people in the country who specialize in 18th century dentistry. She said that when she started out as a re-enactor she wanted to portray a soldier but was not permitted to because she is a woman.

“I had to find a unit that would allow me to do that,” she said.

She said there are two parent organizations in the country for re-enacting. (The British have their own re-enactors organization called the British Brigade).

“One of the oldest is the Brigade of the American Revolution, the other is the Continental Line, where the rules are looser. They allow women to be soldiers,” she said.

Wienkop, who was born in Point Pleasant, is the director of the medical department of the Continental Lines. The medicines that she carries are real and not colored powders and liquids, she said.

“I can make the compounds. The medicines are herbal and chemical medicines. I’m the only person I know of who carries mercury compounds,” she said, adding that doctors in the 18th century treated a fever with Peruvian bark that was imported from South America. “Almost everything used was imported.”

She said there were very few dentists practicing at that time.

“You can count on two hands the number of dentists and most people did not get to go to one. You either had a lot of money to go to the dentist or you didn’t go,” Wienkop said.

According to legend, George Washington had wooden teeth, but Wienkop said that is not true because false teeth in those days would have been made of a combination of materials.

“Sometimes they were made from a block of ivory, sometimes they were real human teeth or from hippopotamus or walrus ivory. Both George and Martha had about six sets of teeth,” she said.

According to the Academy of General Dentistry, in 1785, John Greenwood served as Washington’s dentist and helped raise public awareness about porcelain teeth.

According to Wienkop, Pierre Fauchard was the father of modern dentistry. In 1728 he published “The Surgeon Dentist” which described for the first time a vision of dentistry as a modern profession.

In those days surgeon dentists performed a variety of operations and very few were strictly dentists, Wienkop said.

“They would set false eyes, artificial legs, fix hairlips. If they were lucky they would apprentice with someone, but most of the time they started out as craftsman. They had to have fine motor skills if they wanted to learn medicine or surgery. Paul Revere did dentistry,” she said.

By the 1800s, dental practices included such duties as extracting teeth with a turnkey (a primitive ratchet wrench), cleaning teeth with scrapers and removing cavities with hand instruments. The filling materials used then were tin, gold, foil, lead and silver.

Among the locations at which Wienkop has given lectures or set up displays about 18th-century medicine and dentistry are the Bachman Wickle House and Franklin Inn, both in Somerset, the Thomas Clark House at Princeton Battlefield, Monmouth Battlefield State Park, Manalapan, and Yellow Springs, Pa.