Horrible history of Dentistry

A trip to the dentist a few hundred years ago was very different...
27 November 2018

Interview with 

Rachel Bairsto, The British Dental Association



Some of us don’t particularly enjoy a trip to the dentist but if you’d lived a few hundred years ago could be a lot worse. Izzie Clarke paid a visit to the British Dental Association museum in London where curator Rachel Bairsto took her through the gruesome history of dentistry…

Rachel - The dentist didn't come about until about 1728. Before then anybody could give you advice about your teeth or take your teeth out if that was necessary. Perhaps you would go and see the blacksmith if you were in a poor rural community to have your teeth out, perhaps you would consult the barber surgeon who would also cut your beard as well as extract your teeth.

Izzie - I saw a postcard here at the museum earlier that had jester surrounded by a crowd and some poor man waiting to have his tooth pulled out. Was it quite I guess a form of entertainment almost?

Rachel - Well I think it could be certainly there wasn't a dentist if you like, they would be this travelling teeth drawer who would come into town drum up trade. He's looking for somebody who's had a toothache and he's going to a rickety stage in the centre of town and he's going to whip up the crowd. They're all excited and he's going to get to it and he's going to wave it around and perhaps he's going to pull a maggot out of his pocket and say this is what's been causing your toothache because you know it was thought that a tooth worm living in the tooth was the reason for tooth decay it would be this great market place spectacle.

Izzie - Think of it as an old Netflix of the 1720s. This entertaining extraction was certainly a last resort for the patient in question, but what do you expect from an era where oral hygiene wasn't a thing? And it wasn't just the poorer communities that were suffering with extreme tooth decay. Let's fast forward a few decades where the wealthy were eating more and more sugar.

Rachel - Well once you'd had your teeth extracted, perhaps you'd like to buy somebody else's teeth. So the practice of transplanting teeth in the 1780s was quite a fashion and rich people would buy the teeth of poor people who were willing to sell them for their money and literally planted from one mouth to the other. It didn't work as you might expect, but nonetheless it's been immortalized in a Thomas Rowlandson cartoon from 1787 so it's a great record of that procedure. But if transplanting didn't work the next thing that you would probably try is buying an ivory denture. So this is a hippopotamus or walrus ivory denture beautifully carved, great skill involved in this but there was no real accurate way of measuring the mouth so it was pretty much one size fits all.

Izzie - Rachel showed me a pair of these ivory dentures, the gums were carved from white ivory and whilst replacement teeth were also traditionally made from ivory they didn't always look natural, and so people started pinching teeth from dead soldiers on battlefields or took them from dug up corpses  - a lucrative business  - but of course contamination was a big problem.

Rachel - No they wouldn't last, you’re putting them into what in effect is a pretty putrid mouth. So they're going to rot. They're going to stink. It would be quite horrible.

Izzie - And you thought morning breath was bad! But then things started to change.

Rachel - By the 1850s, we have a revolutionary product that comes in it's called vulcanite and it's a pink rubber. It came from America in the 1850s. It was cheap. It's much more easy for the dentist to make a set of dentures out of these. You would attach porcelain teeth that they've now got into that denture, it’s cooked and it makes it hard, much more aesthetically pleasing and a set of these is going to last you for your lifetime now.

Izzie - So much so that people would have them as wedding presents. But who was the dentist in question? Were people still using their local blacksmith?

Rachel - So the first qualification comes in in the 1860s so we see in 1860 the LDS the Licence in Dental Surgery, obviously as a result of that the students have to learn somewhere, so that the establishment of the dental hospitals and the dental hospital schools. So you're beginning to get the basis of a profession. You've got all this equipment that's coming in in the Victorian period. All these manufacturers are starting to make the equipment that the profession needs. So that's really really helping, you've got a much more scientific understanding coming on so it really is a boon time for the dental profession.

Izzie - We've got improved dentures, porcelain teeth, and finally the much loved dentist drill was invented by a James Morrison in 1878 to prepare teeth for gold fillings.

Rachel - You could achieve 2000 rotations in minutes so dentists have a very strong right thigh of this generation. Shall we give it a go?

Izzie - Yeah! So basically there's a foot pump that spins this mechanic around which goes up this massive rod and then is attached to a drill which has a little mechanism at the bottom which just spins round and round and round and this is the drill that would eventually get into people's cavities, look at what's going on there?

Rachel - Yes so he saw his mother using a sewing machine and he said I can use that for dentistry. I've certainly heard that in Guy's Hospital in the 1970s when there were power cuts if they were in the middle of treatment and there was no electricity, this piece of kit would come out of the cupboard so in order that they could finish it off. And you can control the drill speed making it a pretty fine piece of kit really.

Izzie - But what about oral hygiene? Were people cleaning their teeth to almost prevent the need for these?

Rachel - There's one idea that actually soldiers returning from the first world war brought back with them the toothbrush that they had been issued. Arguably they hadn’t used it to clean their teeth during the war they are using clean their boots, but nonetheless it was a toothbrush. It begins with this idea of having your toothbrush in the family that actually the idea of cleaning your teeth. It's beginning to take root.

It's going to take a long time, but actually you've got the founding of school dental society you've got children's toothbrush clubs, all things that are set up to try and enable people to buy a toothbrush to bring it into this concept of the home and to clean your teeth once a day. We haven't got to twice a yet, but once a day it's a starting point and actually the importance of oral hygiene that you can do something yourself as a patient.


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