A bite-sized history of dentistry

Humanity’s long quest for a pearly white smile has produced everything from jewelled Maya tooth implants to ivory dentures given as a wedding present. Emily Scott-Dearing introduces Charlotte Hodgman to seven of the most fascinating objects from a Wellcome Collection exhibition on the history of teeth

N Dubois de Chémant demonstrating his own, and a grotesque female patient's false teeth, to a prospective male patient with grossly disfigured teeth. (Wellcome Collection)

Napoleon’s toothbrush

Not even the strictest cleaning regime could save the French ruler from the damaging effects of sugar

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Napoleon's toothbrush. (Photo by Wellcome Collection)
Napoleon’s toothbrush. (Photo by Wellcome Collection)

This ornate silver toothbrush with horsehair bristles belonged to Napoleon Bonaparte – who, unusually for the time, is said to have brushed his teeth morning and night. “Despite his strict cleaning regime, Napoleon’s teeth – like most 17th and 18th-century aristocrats – were, it was claimed, bad, dirty and seldom seen,” says Emily Scott-Dearing. “Teeth cleaning was not a common practice at the time, and dental care was unaffordable for most, so many teeth would have been stained, rotten or missing. And by the mid-17th century the price of sugar had fallen dramatically. This made it more affordable, but rottened and blackened people’s teeth in the process.”


Love bites

These ivory dentures made for an unusual wedding gift

Ivory dentures. (Photo by British Dental Association Museum)
Ivory dentures. (Photo by British Dental Association Museum)

Early dentures were usually carved from hippopotamus and walrus ivory – and, from the early 19th century, porcelain – but their vast cost meant that only the very rich could wear them.

“This partial upper denture from the 18th century is carved from a block of walrus ivory and was presented to a bride as a wedding gift,” says Scott-Dearing. “Ivory dentures were handcrafted to fit the wearer and would have taken several days to make. This would have made them incredibly expensive. What’s more, they would have been difficult and heavy to wear in the mouth and would have become foul smelling and dirty within a few years without regular cleaning.”

One of the most famous early denture-wearers was American president George Washington, who went through several sets during his lifetime, most of which were spring-loaded.


Mouth to mouth donations

Rich Georgians happily accepted teeth extracted from the poor – or even the dead

A fashionable dentist's practice, etching by Thomas Rowlandson. (Image by Wellcome Collection)
A fashionable dentist’s practice, etching by Thomas Rowlandson. (Image by Wellcome Collection)

This 1787 etching by Thomas Rowlandson, entitled Transplanting of Teeth, demonstrates the huge disparities in access to dental care between rich and poor in the 18th century. The chimney sweep at the centre of the image is having a tooth removed, while the well-dressed woman next to him waits for the extracted tooth to be implanted into her mouth.

“Teeth transplantation had its moment at the end of the 18th century,” comments Scott-Dearing. “Surgeon John Hunter was the first to experiment with transplanting teeth, and in the 1770s he claimed to have successfully transplanted a human tooth into the comb of a cockerel [the bird’s head is on show in the exhibition]. Human to human tooth transplants soon followed – most staying in place for a year or two – and dentists lured the poor to their surgeries offering money for live teeth.

“Even corpses weren’t immune to the booming trade in teeth. After the battle of Waterloo, it’s said that within 24 hours thousands of dead soldiers were stripped of their teeth, to be set into dentures.”


Jewel in the crown

Maya dentists added precious stones to teeth in elaborate religious rituals

A jewel in a Mayan tooth. (Image by British Dental Association Museum)
A jewel in a Mayan tooth. (Image by British Dental Association Museum)

Dating from AD 500–1000, this ancient tooth from the Maya civilisation (which occupied most of central America and south-east Mexico) has been skilfully inlaid with a piece of jade.

“The Maya had highly developed dental skills for such an ancient civilisation,” says Scott-Dearing. “Inlaying a live tooth with a precious stone would have required incredible precision and was probably performed for ritual or religious purposes rather than decorative reasons.

“A round copper tube – similar in design to a plastic straw – would have been spun rapidly between two hands onto a slurry of powered quartz, which had been placed on the tooth as an abrasive. Repeated spinning would have eventually created a hole in the enamel into which a carefully cut stone could be placed.”


Banishing the cobwebs

In the early 20th century, the parlous state of Britons’ teeth gave the government a rude awakening

A 20th-century dental health poster. (Image by British Dental Association Museum)
A 20th-century dental health poster. (Image by British Dental Association Museum)

By the 1920s, the British government was more alive than ever to the poor condition of the country’s teeth – chiefly as a result of the Boer War (1899–1902) and the First World War. “Many of the men signing up to fight were being rejected purely on the grounds of poor dental health [often due to the financial costs of treating them],” states Scott-Dearing. “The government realised it needed to take action.”

A series of public health campaigns were launched, pushing a preventative approach to oral health with an emphasis on beginning a good dental routine in childhood – as seen in this poster from 1945, by Abram Games, exhorting Britons to “brush the cobwebs away”.

“Companies quickly jumped on the dental bandwagon, creating posters advertising the perfect pearly white smile,” adds Scott-Dearing.


Smiles for the masses

The past century has witnessed a rocketing demand for toothbrushes – and dentures

A toothbrush factory. (Image by Hertford Museum)
A toothbrush factory. (Image by Hertford Museum)

Chew sticks and other teeth cleaning implements have been in use since ancient times, but the first mass-produced toothbrushes were introduced in the late 18th century – the brainchild of Englishman William Addis.

“Addis toothbrushes combined a bone handle with boar or badger hair for bristles”, says Scott-Dearing. “Although the product initially proved popular with the wealthy, it wasn’t until the 20th century that regular teeth cleaning became the norm.” According to the British Dental Journal, by 1939 the consumption of toothbrushes was 25 million a year – around one for every two people in Britain.

Toothbrushes were made by hand – as seen in this photograph of women working in an Addis toothbrush factory in the 1920s – until 1935, when bristles began to be made out of nylon.

“The formation of the NHS in 1948 was another landmark moment in dental history”, says Scott-Dearing. “For the first time medical, dental and nursing care were provided with no charge.

“Demand for dentures massively exceeded expectations: within the first nine months of the service, the NHS had provided 33 million individual artificial teeth – a figure that rose to 66 million per annum over the next three years.”


Pain barriers

Moles’ feet were employed as weapons in the war on bad teeth

Mole's foot amulet. (Image by Science Museum, Science and Society)
Mole’s foot amulet. (Image by Science Museum, Science and Society)

How are moles’ feet – like the ones shown above, collected by the 19th-century folklorist Edward Lovett – connected to dentistry? The answer is that, for centuries, they were employed as a protective agent against toothache, a practice that can be traced back to the Roman writer Pliny.

“Amulets as a form of protection against toothache were common in eras where preventive care of teeth wasn’t understood or widely practised,” remarks Scott-Dearing. “It’s unclear why moles’ feet were linked to teeth. Mole claws, arguably, resemble teeth, while their cramped appearance may have encouraged an association with tooth cramps or pain.”

Dr Emily Scott-Dearing is a museum and science communication consultant and co-curator of Wellcome Collection’s TEETH exhibition. TEETH is running at Wellcome Collection, London from 17 May–16 September. Admission is free: wellcomecollection.org

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This article was first published in the June 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine