The Teplitsky Dentists: Dentistry in the Soviet Union

When I first decided to become a dentist, my dad cued me in on something I never knew about my family: Once upon a time, in the Soviet Union, my grandmother was a dentist. By now, you know that I’m pretty passionate about teeth, but finding out that this profession was in my blood made me both ecstatic and curious. What was it like for my grandmother? After all, I never really got to know her that well, so a look into the teeth of the past was also a way to get to know my roots.

What I learned amazed me! Obviously, Grandma Teplitsky wasn’t working with the tech we have available today (to fill a tooth, she had to stomp on a pedal of this turbine-like machine to make the drill spin), but even the method of care itself barely resembles what we have these days. Partially due to the fact that she was living and working in Soviet Russia, my grandmother didn’t see her patients every six months. You didn’t go into the dentist until after something went wrong, and for a lot of her patients, things had to go really wrong before they could do anything. Back in her day, anesthetic was only used when cavities were really bad, minor ones were drilled and filled au naturel… Needless to say, not many people really liked the sensation, and they would wait and wait until the cavities were just bad enough to numb before they even went into the office.

Most families didn’t even have toothbrushes, and kids from those lucky few that did wouldn’t normally start brushing until they were six or seven (after all, baby teeth just fell out – they weren’t important). My mom recalls being given a toothbrush when she was about six years old, and that was that. Nobody taught her how to brush, neither her dentist nor her parents. How we do things now is worlds away from my grandmother’s career. While she focused on reactive dentistry (if something hurts, then something’s wrong – and then we’ll try and fix it), we now focus on proactive care (let’s keep things feeling good and prevent them from hurting in the first place!).

Even in their early years, kids need dental maintenance, and that played a big part in how my siblings and I grew up. We know so much more now, and instead of ignoring baby teeth, we give them the respect they are due. When I look at my parent’s generation, they are now missing so many teeth, and I know that’s related to their early lack of preventative care. It really drives home the reality that dentistry is largely about education. We think about teeth in a different way than my grandmother and my parents, and we care for them from the moment they sprout.

I first thought it was a bit odd that my grandmother was a female dentist back in the old country – after all, even in the US, female doctors weren’t allowed to practice until pretty late in the game. When I asked my dad about it, he mentioned that dentistry in Russia was more of a female profession in general. There’s your fun fact for the day! In a lot of ways, I have to thank my grandmother for her career because of all it can teach me. Granted, she did think about teeth in a much different vein than we now understand them, but it’s because of that contrast that I can appreciate the importance of preventative maintenance. Even now, things are changing and we are the catalyst for that change, keeping our teeth healthy and intact to last a whole life through.

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