Der sichere Augen- und Zahn-Arzt – The Safe Eye and Tooth Doctor - 1732
Christoph von Hellwig (a.k.a. Valentin Kräutermann) (1663-1721)
Born in rural Kölleda, Germany in 1663, Christoph von Hellwig was a German physician, alchemist, and poet recognized as the inventor of the modern toothbrush. He studied medicine in Jena and Erfurt, in Thuringia from 1681 to 1688. After obtaining his medical license, Hellwig practiced in Weißensee for four years, then in Frankenhausen for another three years. Following this, Hellwig was appointed stadtphysikus, or city physician, for the town of Tennstedt in 1696. In 1700, he published a treatise in the journal Frauenzimmer-Apotheke, or Women's Bedroom Toiletry, that described the first modern toothbrush, which had a wood or metal handle and soft horsehair bristles. In this publication, Hellwig explained the benefits of using his toothbrush over conventional methods of dental hygiene, such as chewing sawdust or cleaning with a rag. Through this publication, his toothbrush became widely known within society’s upper classes and its use began to replace less-effective methods of dental hygiene. However, cloth with tooth powder was still more commonly used until toothbrushes could be cheaply mass-produced following William Addis in 1780. In recognition of his invention and his contributions to the city’s public health, Tennstedt, a town 200 miles south-west from Berlin, erected a toothbrush monument that can be appreciated today.
In 1712, Hellwig left his post as city physician in Tennstedt and returned to Erfurt, where his son was attending medical school. Sitting on the Gera River, Erfurt offered convenient shipping for Hellwig’s thriving mail-order pharmaceutical business. Hellwig’s famed homemade remedies were seen as “miracle drugs”. At Erfurt, he was also able to focus his time on his writing. Using various pseudonyms such as Caspar Schröder, Constans Alitophilus Hertzberger, and Valentin Kräutermann, Hellwig published approximately 240 works. Not only did Hellwig write medical and surgical texts, but he also wrote herbal and alchemical works, as well as poetry and astrology. In fact, Christoph’s brother, Johann Otto von Hellwig, was another renowned physician and author that is the suspected man behind the pseudonym Ali Puli, eminent and mysterious alchemist. Furthermore, Christoph is credited with creating a “Hundertjähriger Kalender”, a centenary calendar of (inaccurate) weather predictions, based on observations by Maruitius Knauer.
What is particularly notable of Hellwig’s medical and scientific publications is that the majority of them are written in German, rather than the customary Latin, which was only used by academics and medical professionals. In doing so, Hellwig sought to target the masses, and is recognized as one of the first to intentionally target female readers as an audience. This likely contributed to his success as a businessman and author and was key to the circulation of his invention of the toothbrush.
Under the pseudonym Valentin Kräutermann, wrote Der sichere Augen- und Zahn-Arzt, or The Safe Eye and Tooth Doctor, in 1732. This book is described as an “accurate description of all eye and tooth ailments, along with clear instruction”. The Safe Eye and Tooth Doctor is separated into two sections— one dedicated to the eye and ophthalmology, and one to teeth and dentistry. The eye portion is substantially longer, broken into forty chapters, while the tooth section consists only of nine chapters. Each chapter focuses on specific anatomy, pathology, or treatments with incredible detail and comprehensiveness. Hellwig describes the anatomy of the eyes and supporting tissues; diseases such as cancer, glaucoma, and cataracts; and potential treatment for these diseases. In the dental portion of the book, Hellwig also thoroughly describes dental anatomy and occlusion, the primary dentition, tooth extractions (with and without instruments), and dental caries. Regarding dental caries, Hellwig subscribed to the theory that tooth decay was the work of tooth worms, which was a commonly held belief from multiple ancient cultures. He also describes using cautery and filling using gold to resist decay in carious lesions. Additionally, recipes for remedies and medicines that Hellwig prescribes for particular ailments are commonly found throughout the work. Overall, Christoph von Hellwig’s body of work is quite impressive in both its comprehensiveness and level of detail in two very different organ groups in the body.
(Based on research and essay by James Wohlmuth class of 2024 as part of his assignment in the Elective in History of Medicine and Dentistry Course Fall 2020). Edited by Andrew I Spielman.