Death in the Dentist Chair

Nitrous Oxide – No Laughing Matter

Nathaniel Miller
Nathaniel Miller two patients died in his care.

Nathaniel Miller became a very successful and wealthy 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’.

By 1895 Nathaniel was a dentist with a practice at 95, Fishergate.

In 1882 a boy had died in his dentist’s chair. In 1895 a second death was to occur in his chair.

Dentistry was only really regulated from 1878/79. Nathaniel Miller was a legitimate dentist and is on the first Dentists Register in 1879 and subsequently used the initials LDS (Licentiate in Dental Surgery).

By 1901 Nathaniel lived with his wife and children at Derby House, 12, Winckley Square and subsequently at 12 Ribblesdale Place – both grand houses. Fatal incidents in his dentist’s chair did not seem to have a negative effect on his reputation or his social standing.

Derby House, 12, Winckley Square now demolished.


12, Ribblesdale Place : Steve Harrison

Annie Budden’s last day alive

Death by corset!!!

Annie Budden was employed by Councillor & Mrs. Willan of 25, Ribblesdale Place as a domestic servant.

Annie worked at 25 Ribblesdale Place : Steve Harrison

On 12th January 1895 at about 7 o’clock in the evening Annie, aged 23, visited the dental surgery of Nathaniel Miller at 95, Fishergate. What was to follow brought back haunting memories of the day in April 1882 when a young lad choked to death in Mr. Miller’s dental chair.

Nathaniel Miller’s Fishergate Dental Practice is in the foreground; a three storey house. Next to the Preston Savings Bank. Preston Digital Archive

Miss Budden asked the dentist if he would take out two teeth that were causing her pain. After an examination he found that the pain was resulting from a lower tooth and agreed to extract it. She asked for gas, and from her healthy appearance he had no hesitation in administering it.

Clovers ether inhaler and Hewitt’s nitrous oxide : Wellcome Foundation

Within half a minute Annie was thoroughly unconscious and Mr Miller proceeded to remove the tooth, throughout which operation her breathing was normal.

She quickly recovered consciousness after the procedure was complete, but the dentist then noticed a slight pallor down each side of her nostrils and she began breathing spasmodically.

These symptoms alarmed him. She quickly lapsed into an unconscious state and at once he applied nitrate of amyl. He then sent his assistant to fetch Dr Collinson of 32, Winckley Square while he applied artificial respiration. The doctor arrived quickly and injected the patient with ether, and in removing her clothing he found her stays were so tightly laced that they had to be torn asunder. Despite the best efforts of both surgeon and dentist the patient slipped into death within half an hour.

The Inquest

On the following Monday afternoon an inquest was held at the Preston Royal Infirmary before the coroner Mr. J. Parker. It was attended by Annie’s father Edmund Budden, a cashier from Middlesex. He formally identified his daughter who he said had always had good health. Mrs. Willan stated that the deceased had worked for her for seven months and had been an exceedingly good girl of regular habits. She was unaware that she was going to visit the dentist, although she had spoken of toothache a few weeks earlier.

Nathaniel Miller told the inquest of the procedure he had carried out and his unsuccessful efforts, along with Dr. Collinson, to save her life. He then stated that he had been in practice for 25 years, and had administered gas safely over 100,000 times.

Dr. Collinson stated that after observing the deceased to be tight laced he had measured her waist and found it to be 23 inches, whilst her stays measured 18 inch. He had conducted a post mortem along with Dr. Turnbull-Smith and they had observed that the appearance of the internal organs indicated that excessive tight lacing had been habitual.

Corsets were made for all ages. Tight lacing stays were very popular.

Dr Collinson concluded by stating that death was due to asphyxia, under the conditions stated, which interfered with proper breathing. There was no suggestion that the gas was too strong and the fact that Mr. Miller had treated other patients that day using gas without any problems suggested it did not contain any impurities.

The coroner, addressing the jury, said it seemed to him that death had resulted from the woman receiving gas whilst suffering the effects of tight lacing. After a brief consultation the jury returned a verdict of ‘death from misadventure’ whilst under the influence of nitrous oxide gas (Laughing gas), due to suffocation caused by excessive tight lacing. The coroner concluded by remarking that Mr. Miller was in no way to blame for the unfortunate tragedy. The practice of tight-lacing had become commonplace and tragedies such as this was a warning of the dangers.

Read more about the life of Nathaniel Miller who was one of Preston’s most respected dentists and was a town councillor from 1881. In his later years Nathaniel Miller spent much time in creating his legacy to Preston, the building and development of the Miller Arcade, opened in 1899, the most fashionable of late Victorian structures. He was made Mayor of Preston in 1910 and when he died in 1933, aged 83, the town mourned his passing

100,000 procedures with gas

Miller’s evidence of 100,000 uses of gas in 25 years is interesting. Either it is hyperbole, the dentist simply suggesting that he has carried out so many of these without a problem or, if accurate, it points to a phenomenal number of procedures. Nathaniel Miller would have had to work 300 days a year for 25 years and to carry out 13 gas extractions per day.

By Keith Johnson