Preston boy suffocates to death in dentist chair

The inquest was held at the Rosebud Inn
The inquest was held at the Rosebud Inn
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Local historian Keith Johnson looks back at the tragic death of a 10-year-old during a visit to the dentist...

During the last week of April 1882 William Smith, aged 10, a 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 on London Road, had been recommended to him.

On the Thursday morning Mr Smith travelled from Chorley with his son arriving at the dentist’s by noon.

Mr Miller examined his mouth and advised his father that he needed some teeth extracted 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.

Once the healthy looking lad was in the dentist’s chair the gas was administered and within 20 seconds he was unconscious. Working quickly the dentist 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 he did not breathe 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 his father was informed of the melancholy death of his son.

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. His father told the gathering his son had been a healthy child with no medical problems.

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. That was the cause of death.

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.