Exhibition Review: Teeth at the Wellcome Collection

I don't think anyone enjoys going to the dentist. There’s something about the high pitched sound of the drills, rows of sharp instruments glistening under fluorescent lights and the seeping medicinal smells that can put even the calmest people on edge. But a tour around the  Wellcome Collection’s succinct and informative exhibition exploring the history of dentistry will make you grateful for the wonders of modern dentistry.

 In the 17th Century, many believed that worms caused tooth decay. The major culprit in decay was, of course, sugar. In the late sixteenth century, a German visitor to Queen Elizabeth I’s court noted that the monarch had black teeth: 'a defect that the English seem subject to, from their great use of sugar. 

Toothache sufferers wore protective amulets made from moles’ feet and took herbal remedies. If that failed, they would seek the help of the dreaded tooth-puller or if they had the money would purchase expensively crafted dentures. The first dentures were made of hippopotamus ivory, which was thought to be more durable. They were very expensive, because they had to be hand carved to fit each individual mouth, and they lasted only about three years. The next evolution in dentures was when people started using human teeth implanted in an ivory gum. These were often called Waterloo teeth — apparently, the 50,000 corpses on the field after the Battle of Waterloo were stripped of their teeth in 24 hours. 

The majority, however, could not afford dentures and would have to make do with an extraction by the barber-surgeon. The French surgeon Ambroise Paré warned that the extraction of a tooth 'should not be carried out with too much violence as one risks producing luxation of the jaw or concussion of the brain or eyes or even bringing away a portion of the jaw together with the tooth'. Despite this warning, the tooth-puller Le Grand Thomas, one of Paris' most flamboyant tooth-pullers, would lift his client off the ground, allowing their own weight to perform the extraction. 


Teeth pulling

The use of anaesthetic did help numb the pain of dental work, but only after a number of false starts. An early public experiment in 1845, when US dentists Horace Wells and William Morton tried to demonstrate the effectiveness of nitrous oxide in ended in failure as the dose was too low, and the volunteer screamed in agony, leapt up and started a brawl with his dentists.

Fear not, it's not all gruesome, there is a section of striking posters and adverts including this poster by Abram Games' poster encouraging good dental hygiene and an advert advertising Maxam toothpaste warning viewers not to neglect their teeth less they fall to ruin.


Abram Games, Brush the Cobwebs Away poster, 1945.

Maxam toothpaste advert


There is also a charming section with letters to the tooth fairy including this gem 'Dear Tooth Fairy, sorry about this but I swallowed my tooth instead of giving it to you but please can I have some monny?'

The exhibition, which runs until 16 September and is free, was inspired by the splendid book, The Smile Stealers by Richard Barnett which you can buy from Museum Bookstore.

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