Got a Toothache? There’s a Saint for That

November 9, 2017

St. Apollonia painting, 14th century

This late 14th-century miniature portrait by an unknown artist, thought to be the oldest known painting of St. Apollonia, was elaborately executed on a parchment sheet and enhanced with gold highlights. It is found in a book of prayers that had belonged to a Dominican cloister in Flanders.

Dental catalog ad

In this 20th-century printed advertisement, a pensive St. Apollonia prominently displays her distinctive forceps-with-tooth. She is surrounded by interwoven Calla Lilies whose stems are intertwined with other dental instruments possibly available for purchase from the Interstate Drug Exchange Inc. Dental Catalog.

For just about as long as humans have had teeth and eaten starchy foods, they have had to contend with dental discomfort. In the 14th century, as dental ills among people of Western Europe increased, toothache sufferers began to turn to a little-known saint in hopes of relief. A new online exhibit from the Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry's Virtual Dental Museum explores the history and iconography of Saint Apollonia — the patron saint of the dental profession.

Her origin story is not a happy one. She was reputedly an "aged deaconess" living in Alexandria, Egypt in the third century AD, who, rather than renounce God, had her teeth knocked out and then leaped into a bonfire. While she attracted little attention in the years (and centuries) following her death, in the Middle Ages people began to revive her story because of the tooth-loss component of her tale.

St. Apollonia continues to give solace to the dentally afflicted in those Christian communities where the belief in saintly benevolence is cherished. Over many centuries, she has been revered in religious paintings, sculptures, cathedral stained glass images, drama and literature, and honored on February 9, her designated day of celebration. She was adopted as the patron saint of dentistry, possibly in medieval times, and continues to hold that place of distinction, with many of today's dental societies, magazines and practices bearing her name.

The exhibit can be viewed at

The A.W. Ward Museum of Dentistry was founded in 1974 in honor of one of the Dugoni School's early graduates and a pioneer of surgical periodontics, Abraham Wesley Ward, P&S Class of 1902. Since its inception, the collection has grown from in-kind donations, made primarily by alumni. Most of the artifacts date from the mid-1800s to mid-1900s. Donated items are catalogued, with description and donor information maintained in an EmbARK database. The school's Center for Dental History and Craniofacial Study maintains four collections, the Ward Museum being one, to support the preservation and study of dental history, craniofacial biology and evolution.

More information about the collections is available on the school's website.

 Students, researchers and dental professionals interested in studying the collections may contact Dr. Dorothy Dechant, museum curator, at 415.929.6627 or


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Categories: Administration, Featured, 2017