Jun 062012

Theodore Rombout's "Teeth Extraction" from 1635

I have a confession to make: my attendance record with dentists has never been exemplary. It’s not that I don’t like dentists – lovely people, every single one of them, it is just that I work by the “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it “ principle, and so far, it (my teeth) ain’t broke…

'Transplanting of Teeth' by Thomas Rowlandson (© BDA Dental Museum)

That doesn’t stop me admiring the work of the early dentists, and the courage of their patients come to that. My 4xgreat grandfather Richard was forever complaining about toothache, and mentions having an extraction.

He also kept a copy of the British Magazine for January 1773. It contains the following explanation of a tooth extraction:

“First, in drawing all teeth the patient’s head should be held by an assistant in the required position; second, the forceps is always to be held in the right hand, and the fulcrum in the left; third, the tooth after being first freed from the gums, if the surgeon thinks it necessary, is to be gripped as low as possible by the forceps…covered with leather.” It goes on to list a handy guide to the nine stages of pulling out a tooth….nice bedtime reading!

No doubt Richard found it reassuring later in 1773. Throughout the first week of December he complained of toothache (“Friday 10th December the past night very painful with my Tooth etc – got up between 3 & 4 o’clock. Today very bad with it likewise. Frosty, dull, very cold day”). By 16th December he “had an 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.”

I am sure that he never aspired to visit the premises of Thomas Berdmore (or indeed, arranged for the good doctor come to him). Thomas Berdmore (1740-85), was considered the outstanding dentist in England and was known as “Dentist to His Majesty” (i.e., King George III). Thomas  had been born in Nottingham to the Revd Thomas Berdmore and his wife Martha. By the age of 21 he appears to have joined the (Royal) dental practice of Watts Rutter and Green in Racquet Court off Fleet Street . A year later he was  appointed Surgeon’s Mate to the Regiment of Artillery and four years after that, aged a mere 26, his royal approval was marked by his appointment as “Operator for the Teeth”  to George III

In 1780 he published the “Treatise in the Disorders and Deformities of the Teeth and Gums”. It has several chapters devoted to periodontal problems. In Chapter 7, “Of Tartar of the Teeth, and the Recess of the Gums, and Toothache Occasioned by Tartarous Concretions long Neglected,” Berdmore offered detailed descriptions of instrumentation for tartar removal but stressed prevention. He also used surgery when necessary to remove ‘hyper-plastic gingival tissue’ once the tartar was removed. He stated that in some cases the tartar build- up was so thick that removing it necessitated surgery “for without this surgery the gums will not closely embrace a tooth which has been made smaller at the collar by the removal of its tartar”.

The treatise contains some fascinating advice to the public:

* Young children with milk teeth ought “to be encouraged to chew upon coral, wax and such like bodies”.

* “People who eat most sweetmeats are subject to disorders and deformities of the teeth.”

* “Peasant and poor farmers suffer less in this way, unlike those of rank and opulence.”

* “Cracking nuts is hurtful to teeth, as is the custom young girls have for cutting sewing thread with their teeth.”

* “Tooth picks are very bad practice.”

* “I am inclined to think smoking is hurtful to the teeth.”

* He also suggested that with toothache a useful remedy was “astringent liquors such as betony rendered slightly acid by orange, lemon juice or vinegar”. On another occasion he advises “To help cure toothache, keep the mouth filled with warm water or peppermint water, or if that is not handy any ardent spirit.”

* “Free your teeth carefully at night from the scraps of food which are apt to lodge after supper.”

18th Century dental forceps for molar extraction

When it came to correcting a crooked smile Berdmore was emphatic. Addressing the subject of ‘how to bring teeth which are ill into beautiful order’, he wrote: ‘Pass gold wire from the neighbouring teeth on either side, in such a manner as to press upon what stands out of the line.’ (In other words, a form of brace).

The alternative, Berdmore suggested, was to ‘break the teeth into order by means of a strong pair of crooked pliers’.

Berdmore became both rich and famous. Among other things he taught dentistry to Robert Woffendale (1742-1828). Woffendale later went on to become the first American qualified dentist  in 1780. Berdmorere’s wealth enabled him to travel to France (home of so many dental advances in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century). Thus there is a record of Benjamin Franklin receiving a letter of introduction dated 26th August 1784 from a ‘Mr William Strahan of London’ introducing “Thos Berdmore the celebrated dentist who goes to Paris on a pleasure jaunt.”

By the time he died aged 45 he had amassed a fortune of some £40,000 (perhaps equivalent to three million pounds today). He had never married and left handsome bequests to various nieces. His body was brought from London to the White Lion Inn at Nottingham in an elegantly decorated horse-drawn hearse. From there the funeral procession wended its way to St Mary’s Church, where he was buried in the Chancel alogside his uncle Revd Scrope Berdmore. A memorial tablet was set up nearby.






And because no self respecting blog is complete without a James Gillray, here is one entitled ‘Easing Toothache’ (memo to self: never sit on a high stool when visiting the dentist, unless, that is, you are planning to kick him in the goolies if the pain gets too much!).


  One Response to “A visit to Thomas Berdmore, dentist to His Majesty….”


    I’m not reading this until after my 6 monthly appointment next week.

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