July 14, 2005
Fifteen years ago I made my initial visit to the dentist office of Dr. William Lawson. I recall the very first words he spoke to me (while he tugged at a root stubbornly lodged in my novocaine-numbed mouth), “You ever tried to pull a nail out of a 2 x 4 with a pair of pliers, and it just won’t come out?” After practicing dentistry on Birmingham’s Southside, Dr. Lawson has decided it’s time to put away the dental tools he deftly wielded, with deadpan humor, for 52 years.
Dr. Lawson sported a red clown nose when he greeted me on a recent morning as he cleaned out his office. He pointed to a painting of Robert E. Lee on one wall, one of several depictions of Confederate generals that adorn the waiting room. (One has a cut-out photograph of Lawson’s head superimposed alongside the officers.) “That’s not a good picture of Lee, too stylized,” he said. “Lee wasn’t a Joan of Arc character, and that’s how they’ve got him portrayed.”
Despite being on the ethics board of the American Dental Association for two decades and past president of the Alabama Dental Association, Dr. Lawson was an anachronism, a throwback to an era when relations between a dentist and his clients were closer. “A successful practice is knowing the people and having a successful relationship with the patient,” Lawson explained. He’s perhaps proudest of the third generation of patients that stayed with him as they entered adulthood. His office never had a computer, and he worked on patients in chairs in the upright position, as opposed to the modern procedure in which patients recline.
He reflected on changes in the dental world during his half-century of practice. “Back in the late ’50s, early ’60s, there was no dental insurance. A dentist competed with television payments,” he recalled. “People’s teeth are in much better condition now with insurance. There are fewer and fewer people over 65 wearing dentures.” The intimidating drills used to bore out cavities are now high-tech, air-turbo devices with diamond drill bits that whirl at 100,000 rpms as opposed to the earlier contraptions operated by pulley systems attached to a motor that peaked at 4,500 rpms. “Those old drills got hot pretty quick,” he laughed. The drill upgrade took away a favorite trick Lawson employed to distract children as he worked. The dentist would attach a piece of red cotton behind a piece of white cotton to the drill’s pulley cable. He instructed the kids to “watch the fox chase the rabbit,” as the cotton pieces chased each other along the cable.
Dr. Lawson also used other methods to put patients at ease. The walls of the examination rooms were lined with huge murals of soothing Caribbean beach scenes or mammoth photos of the earth taken by an astronaut during a moon landing. He and daughter Barbara, who worked for him for 25 years, recalled a routine the two developed when taking X-rays. Dr. Lawson would take the wooden block that held the film from a patient’s mouth and, without turning away from the patient, toss it over his shoulder to Barbara, who was standing in the hall to catch it.
Sometimes his entertainment was unintended. He used to perform magic tricks while working, pretending to pull coins from children’s ears, then doing the same trick with the tooth he’d just extracted before the child realized the tooth had been pulled. “One time this lady was in the dental chair—she knew about his magic tricks and stuff,” his daughter Becky remembered. “Dad felt a little weight in the sleeve of his lab coat, and the next thing you know, he’s pulling a bra from his sleeve that had gotten stuck inside his coat from static electricity when my mom had done laundry.” The woman in the exam chair grabbed her chest and said, ‘My you’re good!’”
A baby blue jay that Dr. Lawson found outside the office was adopted by the Lawson family. “Melvin” stayed at the dental office during the day. “We kept him in the lab,” laughed daughter Betty. “If little kids came in, Dad would bring Melvin in for the kids to see. Melvin was really attached to Dad. The door to the lab was occasionally left open, and Melvin would fly into the room where Dad was working on a patient, and Melvin would land on his hand just as he was about to stick it in a patient’s mouth.”
His children told of his wicked sense of humor. “He’d be working on us on weekends when it didn’t interfere with his making a living,” Lawson’s son, local radio personality Dollar Bill Lawson, remembered. “He’d put us in the chair and chant, ‘I’m gonna get me a bucket of blood, I’m gonna get me a bucket of blood.’” The younger Lawson also recalled the acrylic imitation pink gum with tiny red fake capillaries used with dentures. “My dad would fix everything with that pink plastic. He’d fix the refrigerator door, anything. Even fixed my glasses. I’d have to go to school with this fake pink, human gum-looking stuff holding my glasses together.”
Friends would bring fish they had caught to the office and ask the dentist to install human teeth, complete with gums. He once fitted a bass with tiger fangs, which was proudly displayed at the famous Ollie’s Bar-B-Q restaurant located on Greensprings Highway.
Dr. Lawson even worked on himself on one occasion. He was due to leave town for a convention when a filling came out the night before. His daughter Barbara held one mirror, while he held the other. Injecting himself with novocaine, he drilled on the tooth and installed a plastic filling. “It’s very difficult to do,” he admitted.
“I think he really just wanted to see if it was possible,” said Barbara. “He doesn’t really like dentists in his mouth, anyway.” &