Dr. Len Lithgow......Novocaine is for Sissies

Dr. Len Lithgow......Novocaine is for Sissies
by Bob Sharpe

It was truly a great day until I bit into that orange Twinsicle.

The first few weeks of March in Coaldale were usually not a good time for a 10 year-old boy. The fun of playing in the winter snow, ice skating, and having school cancelled was gone, yet it was still too cold and windy to be able to get out and enjoy the new beginnings of spring.

Weather forecasting in 1956 was far from a precise science. There were no Doppler radars, satellite images, or high speed computer analyses. My bet is that radio station WLSH’s owner, Bud Aungst called a colleague in Pittsburgh and asked him what was happening there at that time. Whatever it was, we could expect the same 12 hours later. A big snow storm wasn’t something you heard about 3 days out from the anticipated event. You went to bed watching a few flakes begin to fall, and work up 8 hours later with 2 feet of fresh snow covering the town…or maybe nothing at all. Even if school wasn’t cancelled (and it often wasn’t), it was still exciting to see the snow and plan for the usual events that go along with lots of snow. Nobody ran up to the D-Market to stock up on milk, bread, and toilet paper.

This particular March morning in 1956 was sunny and unusually warm. Immediately, thoughts of the rites of spring ran through my head. Get the bike out from winter hibernation in the cellar; oil up the fielder’s glove in anticipation of baseball season; dig out the PF Flyers sneakers and make sure they still fit. I was into the second half of fourth grade at St. Mary’s School and Sister Monica Mary was the fourth/fifth grade teacher. As we gathered on the front steps of the school prior to the first bell, the weather was on everybody’s minds. Jackie Klapac remembered that he still had a sponge ball in his book bag. It was there since last autumn and would be a very important item at recess time.

The school yard at St. Mary’s had recently been covered in asphalt blacktop (we called it Macadam), which was a huge improvement over the dirt and rocks we were use to seeing. One of the guys smuggled out a piece of chalk at the recess bell and we chalked out home plate and the three bases on the blacktop…no more flattened tin cans or scraps of cardboard for markers. We didn’t need gloves or even bats. A clenched fist and a good swing of the arm got the action going. Even the nuns were enjoying the sudden burst of spring. They let recess run overtime.

Back in the room overlooking Howard Ave., Sister Monica asked Bill “Angel” Donovan to go into the back cloak room and find the window pole. The windows for most of the rooms were quite large and tall. At the top of both window sashes was a brass cup into the wood. It matched up with an eight-foot oak pole that had a hook on the end. Insert the hook into the cup and either push or pull to open the windows. The cool breezes felt great and I’m sure the good Sister was glad to have the smell of 30 sweaty bodies dissipated. The dismissal bell sent us all running for the door. It was still winter according to the calendar, so there wasn’t much daylight remaining for our plans of neighborhood fun. Tommy Sabol and I took our baseball gloves and a ball up to 4th street for a game of catch in front of Harold’s Store. All too soon, we got the call for supper as the sun sunk. WLSH said that this unusual warm-up should continue for a few more days, so that made the end of this day more bearable. Winter was far from over and the chance of getting still more snow was possible. Typically it wasn’t enough snow to do much of anything enjoyable. Just an inch or so that quickly turned to slush.

I sat down for supper with a big smile on my face. Mom reminded me about homework after I finished, but Sister Monica gave us just a small fraction of the usual assignments. She apparently enjoyed the day as much as her students. I was really hungry, but those first few bites of food produced an unexpected reaction. It was unexpected…but not unknown. Biting down produced a little shot of pain in my mouth. I hoped to God it was just due to all the excitement of the day. I swooshed the food over to the other side of my mouth and continued eating without any major concern. After finishing, I wandered over to the refrigerator to see if there were any treats for dessert. Nothing in the fridge part, so I opened up the freezer door and snooped around. There it was near the back. One half of an orange Twinsicle that I had forgotten to finish a week ago. The Twinsicle was an ice water pop made up of two parts, each having its own wooden stick I carefully removed it and unwrapped it. I’ve had many of them snap on me and that means you have to eat it by hand, with the pop melting all over you. I looked at it for a moment and just thought about what a wonderful day this had been. Finally I took my first bite.


NO! It’s just not fair! The pain wasn’t new to me but it shot through my jaw and into my skull like a cold dagger. In disgust, I threw the rest of the Twinsicle into the kitchen sink.

My father’s family had a history of dental problems. My mother’s family had a history of dental problems. Put those two genes together and what do you expect? Both Chappy and Mary had bid adieu to their God-given teeth years earlier and the last person to see those teeth was Dr. Leonard Lithgow of Coaldale. Mom often recalled going to Len’s office on First Street years earlier in the middle of the night. She was is total agony and told him to just pull out all them little sons-of-bitches and get it over with once and for all.. My baby teeth were long gone and my permanent ones had barely been operational before I too was a frequent visitor to Dr. Lithgow. Back then there wasn’t much available to those with teeth prone to decay. The water was not fluoridated and the toothpastes of the day never claimed to reduce cavities. Len had tried several ‘treatments’ to harden the enamel, but with little success.

Mom went to the medicine cabinet and took out a small brown bottle labeled “Oil of Cloves”. She learned years ago with her own problems to always have it on hand. She took a small wad of cotton, balled it up, and put a few drops on it. I carefully put it on the bad tooth and slowly closed my mouth to hold it in place. Oil of cloves is a topical anesthetic and it gradually began to numb the pain. She came back to the kitchen to see how I was doing and told me she had just called Doc Lithgow and he could see me tomorrow after school. I did manage to get some sleep that night but I remember asking why such a good day had gone bad so quickly. The next morning, Mom suggested that stay home from school and wait there for my appointment. It was still painful but I thought that being in school would take my mind off the problem.

That day was just as warm and sunny as the last but this time I went to school without a big smile on my face. I took along the little bottle of cloves and some cotton just in case. I told Sister Monica about it and she said to just take it easy.

“I won’t call on you for anything during class and if you feel you can’t do the work, don’t worry about it. Say a little prayer and ask God to make you feel better”.

I hadn’t thought about ‘praying away’ the problem but figured it was worth a shot. Unfortunately God must have had more important issues to deal with because it wasn’t going away. I once heard a wise person say that God answers all our prayers…but sometimes the answer is “no”. The school day finally ended and I wasn’t sure if I was happy or sad to see it happen. The route to Len Lithgow’s office was well known to me by this time. Straight out the school door…across 2nd Street and between the church and convent. At the end was a gate opening onto 1st Street. Cross there and 50 feet up sat a detached white farm style house at address 251…the longtime home of the Lithgow family.

The first records of the Lithgow family in the Panther Valley area go back to the 1870 Federal Census. William and Margaret Lithgow both emigrated from Ireland and lived in Mauch Chunk. They had five children, one of whom was also named William. He was Len’s father. By 1880 the family had moved to Coaldale; however that census didn’t provide an address. In the 1900 census, Len’s father, William had married Mary and they were living in the family house we all know with their six children…they youngest being Leonard, age 3. In 1910 another son, Coaldale High School teacher Ted Lithgow is listed at age 4. By 1920 Len’s father had died and some of Len’s older siblings had moved out on their own. The residents were mother Mary along with William, Leonard, and Theodore. Also listed is an uncle George Hoffman. The final available census shows the four Lithgow’s there, however Len was listed as ‘absent’. My guess would be ‘attending dental school’.

I never knew much about Len when I was his patient. On the typical visit I was in too much pain to want to talk. Once in the chair with several wads of cotton and half of Len’s tool chest in my mouth, talking usually consisted of Len asking questions and me grunting and/or nodding my head. For one thing, I never knew that Len was one of James “Casey” Gildea’s ‘Leatherheads’ on the Big Greens semi-pro football team in the early 1920’s. I loved football and wish I had the chance to hear some of Len’s stories. Thinking back on it now, the Big Greens may have been Len’s motivation to enter dentistry. I can picture Len in the huddle, watching teammates spitting or pulling out loose teeth from the previous play.

“Hummm…..this might be a good way to earn a living here in Coaldale….teeth”!

Something about Leonard Lithgow that I never heard until I researched him online is that he is listed there under “BoxRec”. This is a website of boxing records.

Len Lithgow

Global ID 531330

sex male

division welterweight

country United States

residence Coaldale, Pennsylvania, United States

won 0 (KO 0) + lost 1 (KO 0) + drawn 0 = 1

rounds boxed 8 KO% 0

date Lb opponent Lb W-L-D last 6 location


142 Jimmy McAllister

145½ 14-2-0

Armory, Reading, Pennsylvania, United States L PTS 8 8

So in 1925 Len got his one chance in the ring in Reading. He lost in 8 rounds against Jimmy McAllister who was 14 & 2. The similarity to Archie “Moonlight” Graham, who was featured in the novel “Shoeless Joe” and in the subsequent movie “Field of Dreams”, is amazing. Archie got his dream to play Major League Baseball by playing one inning for the 1905 New York Giants and then made a much more significant impact in his hometown as a doctor. Likewise, Coaldale was the better for Len losing that match. He probably met a lot of fellows there who also had dental problems.

I opened the front door and then went into the first room on the left. That was Len’s very small waiting room. The door just past there was Len’s “Palace of Pain”. Nobody else was in the waiting room but I could hear the action coming from the Palace. I sat down and just stared off into space. I had probably already read every magazine he had. I barely had time to mentally prep myself when the office door suddenly opened and out walked a patient tenderly holding his jaw.

Len followed close behind and gave me a big grin. “Bobby…just in time. Come in. Have a seat”.

Yea…like I had a choice.

“So, your mom tells me you probably have another cavity”.

“Yea, Doc. Things were ok yesterday until I bit into an orange Twinsicle”.

“Orange? That’s my favorite”.

I got into the chair. He adjusted it for me and put a bib around my neck. He did a half turn on his swivel seat and opened up a drawer in a large oak cabinet against the wall. That cabinet had about two dozen different drawers…each containing its own special torture device. He took out a handful of picks, probes, and scrapers.

“Ok…open wide and let’s see what is going on in there”.

He poked into several suspicious areas. Each time I let out with a little grunt. Then he hit the mother lode. Aaaaaakkkkkk! My legs shot straight out and my fingernails dug deep into the armrests.

“Bingo! There’s our problem”.

This brings me to the title of this piece.

“That cavity doesn’t look too deep. A little bit of drilling and you’ll be good as new”.

I knew about novocaine. Len had used it on me before when the drilling would be more extensive. The pain involved in injecting the novocaine was not very pleasant either. It wasn’t just one quick shot like a vaccination, but a half dozen little shots…each one trying to get through the gums and into the tissue and each accompanied with it’s own little pain.

“Are you gonna numb me up”?

“Naaaaa….novocaine is for sissies. You want to grow up to be a big tough guy. A little bit of pain won’t hurt you. I’ll only be drilling for a few seconds. It’ll be over before you know it”.

I’m not sure why Len didn’t use novocaine more often. Maybe it was just to save money. Possibly it was to speed up the patient turnover. It takes about 10 or 15 minutes for it to take affect. Or perhaps it was just for the reason Len said. A real man learns to work through the pain and not quit at the first small hurt.

Then he reached over to the left side of the chair and pulled over what was by far the worst torture device in his arsenal…the belt-driven drill. While holding the business end of it in one hand, he turned back to the cabinet to choose which of his many drill bits will be used for this session. With the bit installed and the spit sucker hanging off my lower lip and a wad of cotton in my mouth so I couldn’t bite him, he stomped on the foot pedal and brought the monster to life.

I’ve done some research on dentistry from years past and I am at least thankful that the drill had an electric motor. Years before that innovation, drills were powered by a foot treadle. A slow dentist meant a slow drill, and in this type of work a slow drill is a very painful drill. As much as I wanted to block all of this out of my mind, I couldn’t help but watch as the many wheels spun and the belt went zipping along its circuit. Deeper drilling meant more resistance on the drive train, which translated into a slower speed. Sometimes you could actually feel the rumbling on the bit as it dug into the tooth and smell the smoke produced as steel met dentin.

Years later dental technology invented the air turbine drill, which was capable of much higher speeds and also is water-cooled. It is still the usually-accepted way of removing or cleaning cavities. Better?...yes. Painless?...no. In my work I often use a high-speed rotary saw/grinder. It operates at about 20,000 rpm and with a carbide or diamond bit is capable of cutting through ceramic tile. It sounds like a dental drill and when used on tile produces a smell similar to burning teeth. It still gives me flashbacks of Len every time I use it.

Toward the late 1950’s and into the 1960’s Len started to lose his touch with the drill. I’m not sure what it was but he developed ‘the shakes’ and made an occasional hit on a good tooth. With all the other dental problems I was having, my folks reluctantly decided to change dentists and sent me to a dentist in Lansford. He was a younger version of Len Lithgow, especially with regards to novocaine. I remember him for his fat hairy knuckles and him singing songs in some language other than English while he worked on me. Walking out his door after a visit usually meant picking knuckle hairs out from between my teeth.

These days I’m happy to say that my dental issues have stabilized. I have been seeing the same dentist for nearly 40 years now. We have grown old together and have learned to work with each other to maintain a decent mouthful of teeth. I still have the occasional cavity, but the other issue I was having was abscesses. Anybody who has had one doesn’t forget it ever. That was the reason why my Mom had Len pull all her teeth in one night and had this been 50 years earlier, it’s what would be happening to me also. I already had to address this problem and the answer is root canal. I’ve had so many root canals at this point that I start to believe that all my tooth roots are gone.

“Bob, you’ve got a bit of decay on a molar. I’ll need to clean it out and do a filling. Let me numb you up and we’ll get it done”.

“Doc, you’re telling me that this tooth is still ‘alive’”?

“Yep…a little novocaine and then we’ll drill”.

“Norm…how many times have I told you the ‘Doc Lithgow - novocaine’ story? Just drill…I’d rather a few moments of pain than a numb mouth for the rest of the day”.

“I still think you’re nuts, but you promise to tell me if it gets too bad…OK”?

“Thanks…and I promise not to scream and scare away all the people in the waiting room”.

It’s all State of the Art now in dentistry. Pain is all but removed from the chair and there are few reasons why a person has to settle for full dentures. Norm has pulled off some minor miracles for me over the years.

As much as I’d like to sit down and have a long chat with Len Lithgow, I don’t want it to be in his office, with me in the chair. I’d love to hear about the Big Greens teams of the past and all the colorful characters who played for Casey Gildea. I’d also love to find out more about his brief appearance in the professional boxing ring.

Len took care of the dental needs for much of the town and I’m sure never turned away a patient based on inability to pay. I know he worked on the nuns at St. Mary’s all those years without ever charging the church. I almost enjoyed occasionally sitting in Len’s waiting room, across from one of the nun’s awaiting her turn with that same look of quiet panic that I always had. Apparently even the nuns couldn’t ‘pray away’ the pain.