Had a very indifferent night the past, with my Tooth – today was enabled to go through the operation of having it drawn out, which gave me great relief. Part fine, part dull, not very cold.”
In his diaries my ancestor Richard Hall makes mention of several trips to the dentist – and it gives me the shudders just to think of what that would have entailed in an era before anaesthetics. But at least Richard was already in pain – and the procedure was aimed at reducing that discomfort. Imagine what it must have been like for someone with perfectly good teeth, volunteering to have an
Extracting a tooth, by William Henry Bunbury
extraction. Why would they do that? Money. It is a fact of life that in some countries today people feel compelled to sell their organs to raise cash to pay off their debts – the trade in kidneys in India being a case in point. But in Georgian England the craze was for the rich (a description synonymous with excessive eating, rich foods – and gum disease) – to replace their blackened, stinking, stumps with nice fine white teeth. Where were they going to get such pearly white replacements? Why, from the poor who, on account of their sugar-free diets, generally did not suffer from bad teeth.
This fashion started to become popular in the last 20 years of the 18th Century – before the trend to use ‘Waterloo Teeth’ ie the teeth removed from the corpses found on the battlefield of Waterloo, and harvested for dentists to use back in Britain. In her ‘Memoirs’ the writer Laetitia Matilda Hawkins tells the story of an impecunious Emma Hart, way before she became the mistress of Horatio Nelson, deciding to sell her front gnashers in order to pay off her debts. On the way to the dentist to face the horrors of the tooth-puller she met a fellow servant and was talked into selling something altogether different – her virtue. Somehow I think she made a wise choice – I doubt if she would ever have snared the Hero of the Nile if she had greeted him with a broad gummy grin where her front teeth had originally been.
John Hunter had been at the forefront of popularising the idea of using transplants: his book “Natural History of the Human Tooth” suggested that the dentist should always have at least two potential donors in attendance. If the first one didn’t have teeth which fitted the recipient, try the stand-by! Once the dentist had found an approximate fit, he would then hold it firmly in position by wiring it in to the adjoining teeth. Other dentists used replacement teeth made out of pottery, ivory, bone or even gold. Contrary to some reports they were not made out of wood, which would have gone soggy and broken apart due to the acidity of the mouth.
The transplanted teeth did not of course grow – but there are instances where they remained in place for months, and sometimes even years. What had started as a craze in London spread to Paris. There, the dentist Pierre Le Mayeur perfected the technique before heading to America to make his fortune.
George Washington’s dentures, courtesy of Mount Vernon
He even treated George Washington and we know that Washington wore dentures – but there is no record that he received any transplanted teeth. However, his aide, Colonel Richard Varick, certainly did receive transplanted teeth – prompting Washington to write this fulsome endorsement: “I have been staggered in my belief at the efficacy of transplantation of living teeth”.
The New York newspapers of 1784 carried advertisements from Le Mayeur, offering payment of £2.2.0 (two guineas) for a set of front teeth “on applying to Number 28 Maiden Lane New York.” Apparently there were not enough takers, and by the time Le Mayeur reached Richmond he was offering five guineas a tooth – “slaves teeth excepted.”
The latter comment reminds me that when I did my university thesis on organ transplantation nearly half a century ago I was in correspondence with a certain Christian Barnard, who of course used a non-white donor for the first heart transplant – into a white person. But 200-odd years ago, slave teeth were not considered suitable. Le Mayeur went on to advertise that he had transplanted upwards of a hundred and twenty teeth during a six month period “and that not one of his operations has failed of the wished-for success”. In practice however, few transplants stayed firmly in place for even six months, and back in England dentists were already pouring scorn on the practice. The view of Thomas Berdmore* and William Rae, both dentists to George III, was that the operations were “dangerous and immoderately expensive”. In particular they were of the opinion that the only way you could get a good fix was if the root of the tooth being transplanted was of the identical length, shape and size as the one which had just been removed. Mind you, that merely prompted the unscrupulous dentists of the period to resort to “re-planting” i.e. taking out the old tooth, filling it, disguising the discolouration – and putting it straight back into its original socket without the recipient being any the wiser as to where his “new” tooth had come from!
Anyway, I am grateful to John Woodforde for his book ‘The Strange Story of False Teeth’ for the information which I have used: now for what I really like, a quick look at how caricaturists liked to show dentistry!
First up, a rather appropriate Thomas Rowlandson print shown courtesy of the British Museum site, and which first appeared in 1787. It is entitled ‘Transplanting of Teeth’ and the site contains this explanation:
“A fashionable dentist is extracting the teeth of the poor in order to insert ‘live teeth’ immediately into the jaws of his patients. In the centre a young chimney-sweep sits in an arm-chair, over the back of which the dentist leans, holding the boy’s head, and inserting an instrument into his mouth. Next (left) a lady sits in a similar chair watching the sweep with a pained and angry expression; she holds a smelling-bottle to her nose; she has just endured an extraction and is about to receive a transplantation. On the right a good-looking young lady leans back, her fists clenched in pain, while a spectacled dentist peers closely into her face, placing his instrument in her mouth. Behind her a lean, ugly, and elderly man wearing regimentals stands in profile to the right, holding a mirror in which he inspects his mouth with a dissatisfied expression. On the left a ragged boy and girl are leaving the room, both crying with pain: the girl inspects the coin in her hand. On the door is a placard: ‘Most Money Given for live Teeth’. A placard on the wall is headed by a coronet and two ducks, indicating quackery: ‘Baron Ron——Dentist to her High Mightiness the Empress of Russia’.
Another Rowlandson, on a more general dentistry theme, is this one from 1811, showing the proud (French) dentist displaying his handiwork ie a full set of artificial dentures:
Other artists loved depicting the cruelty and barbarism of the dentist. Here we have ‘The Dentist, or teeth drawn with a touch’ by Robert Sayer from 1790-2
Or how about this one:It is entitled ‘The London Dentist’ and is described as being ‘ after Robert Dighton’ and was published by Bowles & Carver in or shortly after 1784. But for my money I always like the drawings made by John Collier, sometimes described as ‘the Lancashire Hogarth’. He used the pseudonym Timothy Bobbin:
I recall doing a blog post once before about John Collier and dentistry – here. So I will end with another chance to see one of the images which I used at the time – with the sadistic tooth puller brandishing a red hot coal under the nose of the ‘patient/victim’, forcing him to pull his head backwards thereby pulling out the tooth.
Shown courtesy of the Wellcome Institute
And for anyone planning a trip to the dentist later today – my apologies!
*PS I recall doing a separate blog on royal dentist Thomas Berdmore five years ago here.