A major culprit in decay was, of course, sugar, a product of globalization and the slave trade. 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”. But consumption of the sweet stuff was initially confined to the super-rich. Two centuries after Elizabeth, the habit became more widespread, and fixes for the inevitable rot and tooth loss sprang up. It’s therefore not surprising that a hint of the macabre emerges in this show.
That is notable in a section on technologies devised to replace lost teeth. Efforts to fashion dentures from hippopotamus ivory or even porcelain failed to mimic the durability and appearance of the human tooth. Later, dentists resorted to what were known as Waterloo teeth — harvested from corpses — for use in dentures. These were named after the momentous 1815 Battle of Waterloo in present-day Belgium, whose 50,000 dead supplied plenty of material.
Understandably, extracting teeth from dead bodies made some squeamish. Eighteenth-century Scottish surgeon John Hunter experimented with an alternative to dentures: transplanting teeth from living donors. The fruit of a bizarre early experiment is on display — a human tooth transplanted into the comb of a cockerel. Hunter considered the work a success, thinking that the tooth had actually integrated itself into the comb. Modern examiners have since concluded that he merely did a good job of firmly shoving it in. Yet transplantation thrived for a few decades, says curator Emily Scott-Dearing. Five transplanted teeth are on display, as is one of the most chilling sights in the collection: a cartoon by Thomas Rowlandson from around 1790, depicting an impoverished child in pain after having a tooth yanked to fill out the smile of a wealthy woman.
Friday, May 25, 2018
The somewhat gruesome history of the development of dentistry is always a good topic, and apparently there is a new display about it in England. Some things I didn't know (after the part about Elizabeth I having black teeth, and the English problem with decay being caused by sugar):