A number of professions are widespread among Jews. The legendary Jewish mother derives her greatest pride from being able to say “my son the doctor”, or “my son the lawyer” – and many a fond Jewish mother can speak of “my son the dentist”. Indeed the first two dentists in Australia were Jewish – and partly due to one of them, Sydney acquired the Great Synagogue.
The earliest Australian dentist was Joseph Hyams, born in London in 1789. Sentenced at the Old Bailey in October, 1813, he arrived in Sydney a year later. Almost immediately, in December, 1814, he was in practice as a dentist at 31 Pitt Street “scaling, cleaning and drawing the tooth, when necessary, without causing pain and supplying the vacancy with others of pure Ivory – also corns extracted with ease and safety”.
Hyams was followed by Simon Lear, born in Amsterdam in 1787. Convicted at Plymouth in August, 1816, he arrived in April, 1817. In 1818, we find him advertising in the “Sydney Gazette”: “Simon Lear, Dentist and Corn Operator, No. 7 Castlereagh Street, respectfully informs the public at large that he makes a perfect cure of corns without pain. NB Artificial teeth made in a most perfect manner and the teeth cleansed from the Scurvy and other Disorders and brought to a beautiful white”.
The historian, Sydney B Glass, remarked of Lear (and the same could be said of Hyams) that “as a dentist and a corn operator, he could be described as a curer of foot and mouth diseases”!
Neither Hyams nor Lear was properly trained, and in the “Sydney Gazette” of 29 July, 1820, the public were warned against them by Australia’s first medical board which had – not unexpectedly – found them unqualified to practise as physicians and surgeons. Hyams seems to have reverted to a life of petty crime, and was sent to Moreton Bay in 1827. After his return to Sydney in 1834, he became ranger of the racecourse in Hyde Park, more or less opposite where the Great Synagogue stands today. But once again he fell foul of the law and in 1843 was sent to Van Diemen’s Land, where he died within a year.
Lear apparently continued to practise as a dentist as well as an oculist, and sold “exotic snuff” as a remedy for headaches. Though he had married a gentile woman in Sydney in 1823, he officiated as Mohel at some of the early circumcisions in Sydney, until at least 1835.
His premises were at the southwestern corner of Macquarie Street and Martin Place, and when he died on Erev Yom Kippur, 1847, he left his property to “the Jewish Synagogue in Sydney” and “the Hebrew Philanthropic Institution”. In the 1870’s when the present Great Synagogue was in course of erection, Lear’s premises were sold for 2448 pounds. The proceeds contributed almost ten per cent towards the cost of the new Synagogue building of just under 27,000 pounds. What an asset the community would have to this day if it had retained Lear’s property! Be that as it may, the Great Synagogue and Sydney Jewry as a whole should not forget what it owes to this early Jewish dentist.
Hyams and particularly Lear could attempt to combine so many professions and thus amuse a later generation because, as a separate profession, dentistry had not yet fully come into its own. But more than a hundred and fifty years later, “my son the dentist” is an important, highly trained health professional, and the number of Jewish dentists is surprisingly large.
Why should it matter that Jews are prominent in dentistry? The answer is clearly that Judaism has always been vitally concerned with health as well as halachah, insisting that people have a religious duty to look after both their physical and medical well-being. As a result, medicine was always a characteristic Jewish profession; and it is no wonder that from the nineteenth century on, dentistry, too, became popular among Jews.
Biblical and rabbinic writings reveal advanced medical knowledge, not excluding the field of dental science.
In our ancient sources –
• various types of pain and distress suffered by the prophets and sages are attributed to trouble with their teeth.
• diseases of the gums were classified and treated.
• mouth hygiene was stressed: the use of toothbrushes, toothpicks and salt were recommended, and teeth were scraped to remove deposits.
• the drilling of teeth was known and a doctor had to be careful not to carry out a dental operation badly, even on a slave.
• toothache was treated with remedies such as salt, pepper, garlic, cinnamon, ginger and cloves; vinegar was used by some, but opposed by others because of its acidity.
• bad teeth were recognised as causing digestive disorders, and a person was urged to chew his food well.
• the extraction of teeth was favoured by some and opposed by others.
• fillings and false teeth, sometimes inserted for reasons of vanity, were made of various substances. The relative virtues of silver and gold false teeth were discussed (Maimonides speaks of a gold shell or crown covering a broken-down or unsightly tooth).
• a kohen might be disqualified from officiating because of missing teeth, since his appearance might attract criticism and his general health and his speech be affected.
Dental science thus has a long and distinguished history among the Jewish people, and it is one of the areas of Australian life where Jews were among the pioneers.
This article originally appeared in the Journal of the Great Synagogue, Sydney.