Death in the Dentist Chair

Death in the Dentist’s Chair

Nathaniel Miller
Nathaniel Miller

Nathaniel Miller was a very successful dentist from humble beginnings. In 1871 he lived with his parents at 9, London Road, Preston. He is described as a druggist and chemist. The family lived above their ‘Chemist Shop’ which we assume Nathaniel (age 22) ran, as his father is described as a ‘Lodge Keeper’. Twenty years later he had a dental practice in Fishergate and lived in a very large house with his family in Winckley Square.

William Smith – Fatal extraction

Typical dentist operating room 1885: Creative Commons
Typical dentist operating room 1885: Creative Commons

During the last week of April 1882 William Smith, aged 10, son of Chorley auctioneer Joseph Smith, was suffering from toothache due to several first teeth interfering with the growth of his permanent teeth. Preston dentist, Nathaniel Miller, whose surgery was still on London Road, had been recommended to Joseph Smith. On the Thursday morning Mr. Smith travelled from Chorley with his son; arriving at the dentist’s by noon.

Mr. Miller examined William’s mouth and advised his father that he needed some teeth extracting as his mouth was overcrowded. The dentist suggested that he should have nitrous oxide gas, as it would be a painful procedure. William’s father agreed and the dentist set to work.

Clover’s ether inhaler and Hewitt’s nitrous oxide stopcock: Wellcome Foundation

Once the healthy looking lad was in the dentist’s chair the gas was administered and within 20 seconds he was unconscious. Working quickly, Nathaniel Miller extracted seven teeth within a minute before the effects of the gas began to wear off. It was immediately obvious that something was wrong, as young William was not breathing freely. Fearing that one of the teeth had slipped out of the extracting tool and got lodged in his windpipe Mr. Miller bent the lad’s head forward and struck him on the back. This failed to dislodge the obstruction and attempts to force the blockage down with his hands and by dashing cold water in his face to shock him proved fruitless. The boy continued to struggle for breath, and tried to cough and tore at his collar with his hand. With his patient still breathing, but badly, the dentist ran out of the surgery to get the help of Dr. Marshall whose practice was nearby.

When the pair returned minutes later the boy was slumped in the operating chair quite dead with Mr. Miller’s distraught assistant standing over him. There was nothing Dr. Marshall could do and William’s father was informed of the melancholy death of his son.

The Inquest

On that Thursday evening an inquest was held at the nearby Rosebud Inn into the death of William Smith before the coroner Mr. W, Gilbertson. Joseph Smith told the gathering his son had been a healthy child with no medical problems.

Rosebud Inn corner at the of London Road and Newhall Lane Preston
Rosebud Inn on the corner of London Road and New Hall Lane Preston. In the foreground is a circular cast-iron gentlemen’s urinal, commonly known as an ‘iron duke’. The chimney seen above the tram is that of New Hall Lane Mill: Preston Digital Archive.

Nathaniel Miller gave details of the procedure carried out and stated that unfortunately the normal actions taken to unblock the windpipe failed to work. On at least three previous occasions he had successfully overcome a similar problem when he had ‘put the patients head forward, knocking the person on the back’.

Dr. Marshall then told the hearing that he had carried out a post-mortem examination earlier that evening. He stated that on opening the larynx he found a double tooth of the first growth firmly fixed in it, and completely obstructing the passage. In his opinion that was the cause of death. The only means of saving life would have been to open the windpipe immediately, and remove the foreign body.

The Verdict

After a summary of the evidence by the coroner the jury retired. They returned after a short consultation and brought with them a verdict of ‘Accidental Death’.

Not everyone was happy with the verdict with one correspondent writing to the editor of the Preston Chronicle suggesting that Nathaniel Miller, who was a member of the Town Council, had been negligent in his handling of the affair and that his medical knowledge was lacking.

Despite the criticism, Nathaniel Miller’s dental practice thrived and by 1885 he had moved from his London Road surgery to 95, Fishergate, next to the Preston Savings Bank. When the Harris Orphanage opened in 1888 Mr. Miller was appointed as the honorary dental surgeon.

Nathaniel’s Dental Practice, a three storey house, next door to Preston Savings Bank
Nathaniel’s Dental Practice, a three storey house, next door to Preston Savings Bank. Preston Digital Archive

Despite a second death in his chair in 1895,  his finances continued to improve. He bought 12, Winckley Square as his home and he financed the building of the Miller Arcade in 1899. The arcade is named after Nathaniel Miller not Thomas Miller.

Inside the Miller Arcade, Preston
Inside the Miller Arcade

Subsequently Nathaniel and family moved to 12, Ribblesdale Place – another grand house.  Fatal incidents in his dentist’s chair did not seem to have a negative effect on his reputation or his social standing.

12 Ribblesdale Place, Preston
12 Ribblesdale Place: Steve Harrison

By Keith Johnson