EXTRACTING teeth in the Arctic is an experience North-East dentist Professor Martin Curzon will never forget. He talks to Ruth Addicott about his time with the Inuit

The Northern Echo: Eskimo dentist

A plane arrives with supplies in the Arctic

Pulling out teeth has never been easy. Pulling out teeth in an empty wooden shack deep in the Arctic may sound even more extreme, but for Professor Martin Curzon, it was all in a day’s work.

Prof Curzon from Thornton-le-Moor, near Northallerton, is now Emeritus Professor of Child Dental Health at University of Leeds, but he’s never forgotten his time working with Eskimos in the early 1970s. He extracted 7,000 teeth in three years working as a dentist in the Arctic and continues to give talks about his experience to this day.

After working in the NHS, he wanted to travel and did a stint in British Columbia with Native Americans before specialising in paediatric dentistry at the University of Rochester, New York. When a call came through from the Canadian government looking for a senior dental officer for Baffin Island, he jumped at the chance.

Based in Frobisher Bay (now Iqaluit), his job was to put in place equipment, care for the children’s teeth and increase the dental staff to three (the population overall was about 7,600).

He covered an area of 400,000 sq miles and travelled to 13 Inuit villages, the furthest of which was 1,400 miles from base and had a population of 85. Some places were so remote, it could take him a week to get there. “It’s a vast, vast territory,” he says.

Travelling by small bush plane, he’d set up a clinic in the school gymnasium or sometimes an empty wooden shack. “I set up a portable dental chair and all these Inuit came in and sat on the floor,” he recalls. “I said to the nurse, ‘what are all these people doing here?’ and she said, ‘they’ve come in for treatment and to watch’. They would sit on the floor and chat while I did the dentistry and then have a good joke and a laugh every time I pulled a tooth out.”

Although there was local anaesthetic, serious cases were sent to Frobisher Bay which had a 30-bed hospital.

After he finished his dentistry, Prof Curzon would then wait for a passing plane to pick him up. Once he had to wait for four days.

Aside from the take off and bumpy landings on frozen ice, the flights were pretty hair-raising and more than once he was convinced they were going to hit the cliffs.

“I was at 6,000ft once in a single engine aircraft and the engine suddenly stopped,” he recalls. “The rule was if you crashed, you would probably survive, but whether anyone would find you or not would be a different matter.”

Another plane dropped him off, then crashed within two hours of taking off again. Fortunately there was an old Inuit man on board, who knew exactly where he was and walked four miles to the nearest settlement to raise the alarm. Everyone survived.

To be on the safe side, Prof Curzon carried food supplies for two to three weeks with him at all times. “You would carry a small pot of heating fuel and a tin of stew because you could eat the stew and use the can as a vessel to melt water,” he says.

He wore reindeer and seal skin boots and a ‘splendid’ red and green parka which was made especially for him by an Inuit lady. He still has it – and still wears it. “It’s nearly 60 years old,” he says.

Food consisted of caribou, fish, seal and walruss. The most unusual dish he sampled was muk tuk - blubber from a beluga whale which had a texture like coconut and tasted like fish. “It was alright when it was fresh,” he says. “They killed a beluga whale and just started slicing this stuff off and said, ‘here, try it’. It was a sort of delicacy eaten raw. I also had raw seal liver, that was quite nice in a sandwich.” The only thing he declined was seasoned muk tuk where the Inuit dig a hole, cover the fresh muk tuk with soil and leave it until the middle of the winter when they dig it back up again to eat.

The temperature was minus 40F and one day it fell to minus 56F. The Inuit wouldn’t venture out if the temperature fell below 40, but Prof Curzon went for a stroll “to see what it was like”. “The air was absolutely solid, you have to walk very, very slowly. You mustn’t breathe deeply because you’ll freeze your lungs,” he says. “People in the village were horrified when I came back.”

Although he didn’t suffer frostbite, he saw some terrible cases, the worst of which was a 16 year old boy who had a brand new ski-doo and broke down four miles out. He didn’t have proper boots and had to have parts of both his feet amputated.

Most of Prof Curzon’s time was taken up treating tooth decay and extensive gum problems as the Inuit had switched from a diet of meat and fat to a more Western diet of biscuits, cake and Coca Cola. His youngest patient was five days old, the oldest 85. “They’d make tea and put six to eight tea spoonfuls of sugar in it,” he says.

In spite of this, he has nothing but respect for the Inuit, who he says are the most stoic people you could meet. “They are used to discomfort and pain because of their harsh, terrible environment; sometimes the children wouldn’t cry out, you’d just see a little tear roll down their cheek,” he says. “We managed to save most decayed teeth with special stainless steel crowns that could be fitted over a decayed tooth.”

As they had no money, the Inuit would turn up with fish or a big haunch of caribou. By the end of his stint, Martin had accumulated around 30 Eskimo carvings, some weighing more than a stone and one featuring an Eskimo with a bad abscess on his tooth.

Contrary to the stereotype, he didn’t see anyone ‘rubbing noses’, nor did he see any igloos which he says are ‘purely for tourist purposes’.

“Most of the Inuit, when I was there, didn’t even know how to make an igloo,” he says. “When an Australia broadcasting company came to make a film, they had to go and find an old Inuit man as he was the only bloke in the settlement who knew how to make one.”