Ouch ouch ouch: Profile of Dr. Charles Edmund Kells
into which the teeth could bite down. Dr. Kells' machine, like its generic counterparts at the time, required an exposure of between five and 15 minutes. In 1903, he established the New Orleans X-Ray Laboratory. In his autobiography, Dr. Kells wrote that he "believed the Roentgen ray [x-ray] is the greatest asset of the oral diagnostician."
Loretta Ichord in her book Toothworms & Spider Juice, noted that Dr. Kells held hundreds of his plates' in patients mouths while taking x-rays of their teeth, "ignorant of the damage the beams were doing to his hands." Dr. Kells tells the story best in his autobiography. The crude apparatus which he developed in 1896 (like all other x-ray machines at the time) required depth adjustment. "The variations in the character of the ray [which] were produced by a rheostat," he explained. At that time the conventional manner of "setting the tube ... was to hold the fluoroscope in one hand and place the other hand in front of the tube," he wrote in his autobiography. It was according to how the bones in the hand showed on the screen that determined the rheostat adjustment until the "right penetration was secured," he continued. "Setting the tube" only exposed his hand to the x-ray for a few seconds -- no harmful results were observed. However, 12 years after opening his lab (circa 1910), he began to suffer from malignant growths upon his left hand.
During the next 14 years, his hand was operated on 12 times. "Up until this time, every operation was a minor one and a success, and only one skin graft had been necessary," he noted. In 1915, yet another "ulcer" appeared on his left hand and, according to Dr. Kells, there appeared on the scene a very well-known advocate of the ultraviolet ray. The unnamed individual assured Dr. Kells that undergoing ultraviolet treatment would "positively cure this ulcer; and not only that, but it will clear up all these keratoses." "With a heart far lighter than it had been for many a year," Dr. Kells underwent 12 ultraviolet ray treatments -- three a week for four weeks. Essentially treating x-ray poisoning with even more radiation!
Almost immediately after the treatments ended, another growth started and grew aggressively. The finger, "went from bad to worse," Dr. Kells related. "Surgery, skin grafts, pinch grafts -- all failed. The finger was sacrificed to save my life." Over the next 10 years, Dr. Kells underwent 16 more operations on his hand, losing the remaining fingers, thumb, and finally the hand. In May of 1926, "conditions were such as to necessitate amputation about five inches below the elbow," Dr. Kells wrote. This was followed a year later with the amputation of the remainder of his arm at the shoulder. By 1928, the pain and agony became to great to endure, and Dr. Kells took his own life. "He was one of many x-ray martyrs of the time," Ichord noted.
Dr. Kells wasn't the only x-ray pioneer to so suffer. Shortly before his death, he wrote: "many of the
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family dentist in 1878 "extracted teeth and restored their loss by means of plates -- continuous-gum plates ... he filled root canals after a fashion, mostly with gold ... when the crown of a tooth broke off and the root was sufficiently sound, he attached a porcelain crown by means of a hickory dowel [called a ‘pivot tooth']."
According to historian James Wynbrandt, when New Orleans began electrifying in 1886, "Kells wired his office himself and connected it to the power grid outside his office, becoming the first dentist to use street current to power his electrical dental apparati." At the time, some dental equipment operated on batteries. Kells asserted he was the first dentist to electrify his office. In the book, The Excruciating History of Dentistry, Wynbrandt wrote: "electricity seemed to unleash an inventive energy in the doctor."
Over the course of the next 35 years, Dr. Kells developed and patented some 30 devices, ranging from a dental chair crank to an automobile jack to a fire extinguisher. His most important and enduring invention, though, was the automatic suction pump that sucks and drains saliva and blood during dental procedures. The device was quickly adopted by surgeons in operating rooms throughout the world. The suction pump is still in use today -- an indispensable tool in the medical and dental fields.
Dr. Kells' greatest contribution to dentistry was the dental x-ray. The x-ray was first developed in Germany in 1895 by the physicist Wilhelm Röntgen. Dr. Kells relates that when he first saw a demonstration at Tulane University: "Being interested, as I was, in electrics of all kinds, what more natural than that this phenomenon should interest me extremely? Well it did." Within a year, Dr. Kells developed his own machine and gave his first demonstration in July 1896 in Ashville, NC, to the Southern Dental Association. He created a special aluminum/rubber plate for holding the film with articulating surfaces