Painless Parker: The Crazy True Story Of The Weirdest Dentist In History

Painless Parker was the dentist that the American Dental Association once called "a menace to the dignity of the profession" (per Smithsonian) who served thousands of patients, and whose name was once as well known as the president's (at least according to Parker himself, in his autobiography "The Early Adventures of Painless Parker").

In 1872, when Edgar "Painless" Parker was born, it was considered highly unethical for a dentist to advertise their business in any way. As the future dentist would discover, even having a sign that was too large could be seen as garish and inappropriate. This didn't deter Parker.

He went on the road with dental shows that looked and operated more like a circus than a medical practice. His story is viewed by some as a cautionary tale, a warning to consumers to be wary of unsafe clinical care. To others, he is the individual responsible for bringing knowledge of good oral hygiene to the people.

Edgar Parker finds his calling

When Edgar Parker was nine years old, his only ambition was to become a chicken farmer – which led to his very first sales pitch. According to "The Early Adventures of Painless Parker," he convinced a woman who was selling a hen, hen coop, and eggs for 25 cents to give him the whole set in exchange for fresh fish that he and his sister would collect at low tide. The siblings started bartering fish and eggs, and buying pipes, tobacco, and candy to sell. Although they only earned enough to give Christmas presents to their family, Parker had learned a lesson that would stay with him for the rest of his career: "find out what people want and give it to them."

When Parker was 17, he wanted to become a doctor, but his mother forbade it, telling him she was, "a sincere believer in Christian Science, Edgar, and as such we do not believe in medicine. I will have no son of mine become a doctor of medicine."

On his family's insistence, he agreed to go to a phrenologist to decide his future. According to The Smithsonian, this pseudoscientific practice stated that, "an individual's character and abilities could be deduced from the size and shape of various bumps on the head." Ultimately, the phrenologist told him to become a dentist.

Ethical practice

Edgar Parker first attended the New York College of Dentistry, but according to "The Early Adventures of Painless Parker," he paid for expenses by going door to door offering teeth cleanings. Eventually he was expelled for practicing without a license. Despite this, he continued to work as a traveling dentist – and used the funds to enroll in another school, the Philadelphia Dental College.

He struggled to graduate, barely passing his exams and missing many lectures. The dean didn't intend to allow him to graduate, but Parker talked him into it, on the condition that he "never disgrace the College."

Life didn't get easier after graduation. Parker opened a small practice in New Brunswick. It was considered unethical for a dentist to advertise, so he struggled to get patients. According to The Dollop, he tried everything to bring in business, including tapping into religious beliefs. He would attend church twice a day and even carried a Bible around with him to try to get a good reputation, but it didn't work. He traded a brand new set of dentures to a sign painter, who made an elaborate, gold-painted sign for his business, but it was stolen overnight and hung on an outhouse. Parker suspected it was the work of other dentists, who found the sign garish, and too close to unethical advertising. Although Parker had sworn he would be, "ethical at all costs," in six weeks he had only earned 75 cents, and he decided to change strategies.

'Painless Parker' is born

Completely broke and desperate to change his circumstances, Edgar Parker developed a new technique. He rented a room in a nearby town and took to the streets to attract new clients in need of dental care.

He would first deliver an informative speech about oral hygiene, which sounded like a sermon, about the evils of not taking care of teeth properly. When he had finished, he would offer to extract teeth from anyone in the crowd for just 50 cents. According to the Smithsonian, he had a unique guarantee – and he would give five dollars to anyone who felt pain while he pulled their tooth. Parker didn't have five dollars, but he did have "hydrococaine."

According to the BBC, he would give his patients an injection of watered-down cocaine before pulling the tooth. This ensured that they wouldn't feel a thing and Parker never had to pay. He dubbed himself "Painless Parker," a nickname that would be with him for the rest of his life. Soon he was making enough money to support himself.

The P.T. Barnum of dentistry

While Painless Parker had an exciting show that attracted a large crowd and brought in clients, it was meeting a man called Bill Beebe that turned him into a star. Beebe would quickly become Parker's agent and manager. The first thing he wanted to change to improve Parker's business was his advertising. While advertising was still very much considered unethical for dentists (and what Parker already did to promote himself was pushing the limits of what was acceptable) Beebe thought what Parker was doing was innovative.

"You're ahead of your time, Doc. One day all health professionals will be advertising. You are a pioneer for dentistry," Beebe told Parker, according to "The Early Adventures of Painless Parker," "You have a double opportunity. First, you can be a professional and do a great deal of good for mankind bringing dentistry to the masses. Second, you can be in show business."

Beebe came up with a brand-new strategy for promoting Parker's dentistry. He modeled the plan on P.T. Barnum, the famous conman and showman.

P.T. Barnum and advertising

Bill Beebe read to Painless Parker from a few of P.T. Barnum's books. While it might seem strange to model a dentistry business on a circus and "freak show," even if it was dubbed "The Greatest Show on Earth," Beebe respected Barnum for his showmanship. According to "P. T. Barnum's Double Bind" Barnum was "the first great advertising genius and the greatest publicity exploiter the world has ever known."

While Barnum was widely known for his hoaxes (such as the creation of the Fiji Mermaid, which was just a taxidermy monkey sewn to a fish) he claimed that none of his patrons ever asked for their money back. Real or not, people enjoyed the illusion. According to JSTOR, "Barnum's great discovery was not how easy it was to deceive the public, but rather, how much the public enjoyed being deceived."

Beebe saw potential in Parker to be just as popular a showman. With P.T. Barnum as the inspiration, the two began to plan out the future of "Painless Parker."

The greatest all-around dentist

Painless Parker opened a brand-new dental office in New York City, and followed Bill Beebe's P.T. Barnum strategy to promote it. The times when Parker had avoided advertising were over. His business was advertised by newspaper ads, billboards, and signs hung on abandoned buildings – all promoting Painless Parker as "the greatest all-around dentist in this world or the next." According to the Dollop, there were also massive signs all over the exteriors of the building, some with the letters stretching 10 feet high. They had slogans like, "I am positively in painless dentistry. Yes me, Painless Parker," and "Painless Parker preeminent par excellence, positively painless perfection of practice and philanthropically predisposed to popular prices."

"Popular prices" was certainly true. According to the BBC, no matter how elaborate his advertising became or how many dentists he hired to franchise his business nationally, he kept his prices low enough for poor and working class people to afford.

Outside Parker's NYC office, performers performed stunts of all kinds to attract new clients. Acrobats called "human flies" scaled the building. When he went on the road, however, the show became even more strange and exciting.

​​A Traveling Parade

Painless Parker traveled across the country in a parade with actors, singers, contortionists, dancers, performers of all kinds, and even a marching band. He wore a top hat and tailcoat, and rode in a carriage which, according to the Dollop, resembled a tooth. He threw coins into the waiting crowd. The performers would put on a massive show, and finally, Parker would give his sermon about dental care. Parker is quoted as saying, "My friends! I want to tell you that God hates a man who neglects his teeth!"

Like Barnum, Parker would pull off a hoax. According to the BBC, Parker had someone planted in the audience who would pretend to have a tooth painlessly pulled. Parker would then show the crowd a tooth that he had already pulled, as proof that he had extracted it successfully. When the real patients started coming up onstage, he would give them his "hydrococaine" to prevent them from feeling pain, but he had another strategy to fall back on if that didn't work. He worked out a system where he would tap his foot to signal that he was about to pull a tooth and the band would begin playing at full volume. Then, if the patient screamed the sound would be covered up by the band, and not ruin his "Painless" reputation. 

At a county fair in Poughkeepsie, New York, Painless Parker pulled 357 teeth. He strung all of them onto a necklace, which he wore whenever he performed.

A celebrity dentist almost retires

Painless Parker, with his tooth necklace, top hat, a Van Dyke-style beard, and buckets of thousands of extracted teeth had become a star – just as his manager Bill Beebe had envisioned. At one point he had 17 dental clinics across the country with his name on them. Throughout everything, Beebe was working on advertising for Parker, acting as his announcer when he did public shows, and even playing the slide trombone to attract potential clients at the medical shows.

In 1902, Beebe died unexpectedly, from a stroke. Parker was devastated, and moved his family to Europe, leaving his dental practices behind. According to biographer Peter Pronych, "without Beebe, he no longer had any heart for dentistry."

Parker left N.Y.C. at 34 years old, with the intention to retire. In Los Angeles, however, he was pulled back into his old ways. He performed a public tooth-pulling on a crowded street corner, with the patient sitting in his car. Within two months, he was running full page ads in the local papers and he had four separate Painless Parker dental offices in L.A. His street shows became even more dynamic, even including elephants wearing advertisements on their backs. He purchased a red truck with a "mobile dental office" in the bed.

A dental circus

Edgar Parker didn't change just because he'd become famous. "All my life I've tried to be dignified," Parker said, "But, you know, I'm not dignified. You can't turn a showman into an ethical dentist." He had always had acrobats and tightrope walkers in front of his offices – but now that he could afford it, he purchased a genuine circus of his own. He offered free shows in the 50-foot tent. The performances featured acrobats, clowns, and many animals. Sometimes Parker would pull teeth from lions and tigers.

Parker's empire only grew. According to Maclean's, he had an 800-person staff, including 250 dentists. In states he wasn't allowed to practice in, he had associate dentists who worked in offices that he owned. He had thousands of patients. It was estimated that his annual gross income was at least $5 million.

Not everyone was so impressed with Painless Parker's methods, however.

'Menace to the dignity of the profession'

Painless Parker was constantly fighting with other dentists who didn't approve of the way he promoted his business, or of his street shows. Dental associations worked to change his reputation to that of a "dentist gone bad."

According to "The Early Adventures of Painless Parker," they denounced him as, "a dangerous quack and a charlatan" who performed unsterile procedures that were not medically necessary. While working in New York, he was sued many times, for amounts ranging from $500 to $50,000 each, totaling $900,000 over 10 years. Ultimately, he was only ever charged $4,000, with all the lawsuits put together. 

Some attempted to have laws put in place which were designed to specifically target Painless Parker and his way of doing business. The King's County Dental Society once attempted to get Brooklyn to pass a law banning public tooth extractions, but the mayor refused. The state of California made it illegal to practice dentistry under anything but your legal name. According to the BBC, Parker did everything he could to stop the law from being passed but couldn't prevent it. Undeterred, he changed his legal name from "Edgar Parker" to "Painless Parker," and continued to practice dentistry. Painless Parker is quoted in Maclean's as saying: "They've done their best to hound me to death, but how many ethical dentists have got what I've got?"

A yacht race gone wrong

Painless Parker is undoubtedly best remembered for his showmanship and unique approach to dentistry, but he had many extraordinary adventures unrelated to his profession. As recounted by the Dollop, he once participated in a yacht race from San Francisco to Tahiti. Parker came in second place. Once the boat had arrived, however, the crew abandoned the yacht, leaving Painless Parker to find replacements in Tahiti.

He found four locals willing to assist him – but only one had ever sailed before. To make matters worse, the cook had been intoxicated when they set sail for San Francisco and had forgotten to replenish supplies for the ship – including food and fuel. They began rationing, but this enraged the new crew. They began planning a mutiny, in which they would throw Parker overboard. Parker was armed, however, and "held the crew at gunpoint," forcing them to continue the journey. Then they ran out of fuel. A terrible storm destroyed their sails, stranding them in the ocean with no way to return home. They went a full month without "a full meal" and were at the point of starvation.

Finally, a rescue ship discovered the yacht and towed them back to San Francisco.

Painless Parker's legacy in dentistry

In 1948, when Painless Parker was 76 years old, he was portrayed by Bob Hope in "The Paleface," a film that was an entirely fictional version of Painless Parker's life story that includes him being in a romantic relationship with famous Wild West outlaw Calamity Jane. According to the BBC, Parker loved the film.

While Painless Parker was frequently targeted by dental associations over ethics violations during his lifetime, the Journal of the History of Dentistry states "many young, twenty-first century practitioners have little problem with slick advertising." While they are unlikely to own circuses or wear necklaces of teeth, there is no longer a taboo against a dentist advertising their practice. Painless Parker's tooth necklace and bucket of teeth are now displayed in Kornberg School of Dentistry's Historical Dental Museum Collection, with a plaque that reads, "Much of what he championed – patient advocacy, increased access to dental care and advertising – has come to pass in the U.S."

While Painless Parker's street dentistry and circus dental shows may seem archaic and bizarre today, Parker's vision of all Americans having knowledge of oral hygiene and access to dentistry at affordable rates was ahead of its time.