Our teeth form part of our identity, whether we like them or not. Designed for eating, but prominent when talking, smiling or crying out in pain, they are the most visible part of your skeleton. The Pogues singer Shane MacGowan felt so attached to his notoriously eroded fangs that when they had to be replaced in a procedure dubbed the “Everest of dentistry” he considered having his new set artificially discoloured.
“Teeth”, an exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London, is more than a history of dentistry – although there are plenty of gruesome implements to admire. It also explores the cultural associations of teeth, from the childhood ritual of the tooth fairy to the dream of the Hollywood smile. In 1841 Queen Victoria became the first European monarch to smile in a portrait: open mouths had hitherto been considered vulgar due to their likely rotten contents. Elizabeth I’s teeth, we learn, were black.
Professional dentistry was slow to emerge. For centuries, the go-to cure for toothache – or any dental complaint, really – was a painful extraction. Far beneath the lofty concerns of the physician, tooth-pulling was the preserve of blacksmiths, barber-surgeons or itinerant quacks who would ply their grisly trade at fairgrounds, playing to the crowds. The most famous of these dubious showmen was an 18th-century Parisian known as Le Grand Thomas, who was said to grip recalcitrant molars with his forceps and lift his clients clean off the ground until their own weight did the rest. His motto was Dentem sinon maxillam (The tooth, and if not, the jaw).
Thomas’s contemporary Pierre Fauchard was the first to describe himself as a dentist. Fauchard catered to aristocrats, whose stinking sugar-decayed mouths he promised to transform along with their social aspirations. The term dentiste was an affectation designed to distance himself from the likes of Thomas, even if his techniques in reality were hardly less crude. Nevertheless, Fauchard’s “Le Chirurgien-Dentiste” (The Surgeon Dentist), published in 1728, marked the beginning of modern dentistry. At 800 pages, it was both medical textbook and cosmetic manifesto, encapsulating two different sides of the profession that are still very much in evidence today.
Terracotta votive, 200BC-200AD
Ailing Romans left anatomical offerings at shrines in the hope that gods such as Asclepios, the Greco-Roman god of medicine, would heal the body parts indicated. The Romans ascribed toothache variously to the influence of pernicious worms or malignant humours. Barring the divine, the solution was a painful intervention with a pair of pincers known as a dentiducum. Tooth extraction would remain this barbaric until the 19th century.
Thomas Rowlandson, “A French dentist showing a specimen of his artificial teeth and false palates”, coloured engraving, 1811
Before Charles Goodyear perfected vulcanised rubber dentures in 1840, false teeth were expensive and uncomfortable. Hinged on springs, they had an unfortunate tendency to leap out of the mouth. In this English engraving, Nicholas Dubois de Chemant, a London society dentist who had fled the French Revolution, shows off his patient’s new set of Wedgwood porcelain dentures to a prospective client. Normally the repository of bad sights and smells, an open mouth was still seen as vulgar in 1811, implied here by the caricatured features.
Thomas Rowlandson, “Transplanting of teeth”, coloured etching, 1787
For those who could not afford ivory or porcelain dentures, a macabre alternative presented itself in the form of dead men’s teeth. Usually stolen from morgues and graves, they came to be known as “Waterloo teeth” after the famous battlefield was looted. In the 1760s the English surgeon John Hunter had proposed transplanting live teeth from one mouth to another, having supposedly succeeded in getting a human tooth to take in a cockerel’s comb. This apparent discovery led to a thriving market in live human teeth, as satirised in this print in which the teeth of a young chimney sweep are removed to service the mouths of the rich.
The rapid advance of dentistry in the 19th century was down to two inventions: anaesthetic and the drill. Charles Merry’s pioneering dental drill from 1858 was powered by a foot treadle, enabling decayed cavities to be excavated quickly and filled, thereby saving the tooth. This hand-operated version, which resembles an egg whisk, dates from around 1840. Painfully slow, it would have been only a minor upgrade on the spoon-shaped implements previously used to hollow out rotten teeth.
Diamond no. 2 dental chair, 1925-1935
While the patients of the French dentistes would recline on chaises longues, germ-conscious 19th-century practitioners required a more clinical environment – but not at the expense of their wealthy clients’ comfort. The S.S. White Dental Manufacturing Company sold the first mass-produced adjustable dentist’s chairs in 1850. This later hydraulic model, a masterpiece in ergonomic luxury, was easier to adjust than its hand-cranked predecessors.
Phantom head, University of Utrecht, 1890
“Phantom heads” are still used by trainee dentists to hone their skills. While it might have been sourced from a Ridley Scott art department, this ghoulish wooden model comes from the dentistry school at the University of Utrecht. It is set with real human teeth that have been removed and replaced over the years.