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Remembering St. Apollonia, the Patron Saint of Dentistry

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Written by Adam Zewe

On Feb. 9, the Catholic Church celebrates the feast day of Saint Apollonia, the patron saint of dentists and toothaches. How did a Christian martyr who was around more than 1,700 years ago become associated with the dental profession?

In 249, the city of Alexandria, which is located at the mouth of the Nile River on the Mediterranean Sea, held a huge celebration commemorating the millennium of the foundation of the Roman Empire. As the festivities reached a fevered pitch, a mob congregated on the streets of the city. The mob of pagan Romans began pillaging the homes of the city's Christian inhabitants and murdering Christians on the streets. The angry mob marched through the heart of Alexandria, as hundreds of Christians gathered their possessions and fled the city.

The mob seized an elderly deaconess named Apollonia, who was highly respected by the city's Christians. The enraged crowd brutally knocked out all her teeth and threatened to burn her alive if she refused to repeat blasphemous words against Christ. The courageous Apollonia threw herself onto the fire and burned to death, rather than recant her Christian faith.

Fifty years later, the Catholic Church canonized Apollonia as a saint. She was named the patron saint of toothaches and dentists because she had all her teeth extracted as a form of torture. During the Middle Ages, Christian pilgrims from across Europe flocked to Rome, where a shrine to Apollonia was built outside a church. They would appeal to Saint Apollonia for an end to their dental pain.

A popular saint, Apollonia was commemorated in paintings and on stained glass windows throughout Europe. She is typically depicted as a compassionate woman holding a pair of pincers with a tooth in them. Perhaps her most famous likeness, a screen print by American artist Andy Warhol, sold at auction in 2012 for $11,250.

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