In his influential novel, Les Miserables, which portrays the underclass of 19th Century Paris, Victor Hugo confronts the reader with the story of an unqualified dental practitioner who preys on the wretched poor of the city. The quack’s name is Babet, an adaptable, thoughtful villain. Hugo writes:
“he… [Babet] was thin and learned—transparent but impenetrable: you could see the light through his bones but not through his eyes.He called himself a chemist, and had played in the Vaudeville at St Mihiel. His trade was to sell open air plaster busts and portraits of the ‘chief of state,’ and in addition, he pulled teeth. He had shown phenomena at fairs, and possessed a booth with a trumpet and the following show-board— ’Babet, dentist, and member of the academies, performs physical experiments on metals and metalloids, extirpates teeth, and undertakes stumps given up by the profession. Terms-one tooth, one franc fifty centimes; two teeth fifty centimes. Take advantage of the opportunity.”
A flock of quacks
The last sentence of this extract meant, ‘Have as many teeth pulled out as possible.’ Babet was married and had children but did not know what had become of wife or children: ‘he had lost them’ Hugo tells us, ‘just as another man loses his handkerchief.’ Babet is a fictional character, but he would have been familiar to the readers of Les Miserables. French regulation of dental practice had once been foremost in Europe with ordinances dictating adequate training and examination as early as 1614. Unfortunately standards plummeted after the French Revolution and anyone who paid the fee could apply for and receive a license to practise. Although the regulation of medical practitioners was restored by 1803, dentistry continued to embrace all comers until the Act of 1892.
Consequently many so-called dentists were charlatans. In some cases they were little more than ruffians or itinerant side-show barkers. On hearing of a woman who had given birth to a child with a facial deformity which resembled a calf’s muzzle, Babet exclaims ‘There’s a fortune! My wife had not the wit to present me with a child like that!’
It is therefore likely that Hugo had real-life dandies in mind when he created Babet. One such, named George Fattet, was a selfstyled dentist, who dressed in gaudy silken dalliance and travelled with his similarly attired black servants in a bizarre carriage shaped like a denture. He was an expert in self promotion and regularly commissioned comic portraits of himself and his entourage for the popular press. Fattet may have been a star of the circuit but there were many lesser fakes touting for ‘patients’ along the banks of the Seine, their wagons booming to the sound of drums and trumpets to drown out the howling of their victims.
By Jo Cummins, a BDS with a PhD in History who lives in Glasgow
This article is reproduced from the Spring 2009 issue of Dental History Magazine