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Pelicans were first mentioned in 1363. By the 16th century they were the main extraction tool favoured by itinerant tooth-drawers.

Four pelicans, 16th to 18th centuries


The name pelican derives from the resemblance of the claw to the beak of a pelican. Practitioners had their pelicans made to order by an instrument-maker, copying from medical texts and incorporating their own innovations.


Contemporary literature reveals that the pelican, even when used proficiently, could result in severe laceration of the gums, serious haemorrhaging, and even a fractured jaw bone. The position of the patient was different from today, they were placed on a low seat with their head tilted well back and held firmly between the operator’s thighs.


Pelicans consist of a main shaft with serrated, semi-circular bolsters at each end. Riveted to the middle of the shaft were two arms of different lengths terminating in claws. By using different claws with different bolsters, teeth of four different sizes could be extracted. 


The pelican worked by placing the claw over the crown of the tooth to be extracted and the bolster against the outside gum. Pressing down on the handle levered the tooth out. The introduction of a screw thread enabled more teeth to be extracted.