DENTISTRY in the 17th century was a dirty job that no self-respecting member of the established medical profession would deign to carry out. Pain relief was more or less unheard of and low-skilled barbers and blacksmiths would use the most basic of tools to pull rotten teeth.
It is these bad old days – long before the concept of oral hygiene had found its way into public consciousness – that the latest exhibition of the Wellcome Collection museum so vividly brings to life.
The new show, simply entitled Teeth, charts the evolution of our relationship with our teeth and of the dental profession itself. It winds its way from the grimness of medieval times, through the emergence of the smile in the 19th century (when dentistry finally began to have a positive impact), and on to the Hollywood smiles of modern day.
“The exhibition puts in context that the dentistry we experience today is a lot less invasive, quicker and more heavily managed in terms of pain,” says curator Emily Scott- Dearing. “It certainly made me hugely grateful I live in the era that I do… But I’m definitely brushing my teeth more these days.”
Drawing on the rich collections assembled by Henry Wellcome alongside loans from collections such as the British Dental Association museum in London, the exhibition features more than 150 objects. These include cartoons and caricatures, protective amulets, toothpaste advertisements and a range of chairs, drills and training tools.
Visitors can see the hygiene set used by Queen Victoria’s dentist, the dentures belonging to King William IV and even Napoleon’s silver-handled toothbrush. Also on display are the aluminium dentures made for an RAF corporal in a Burmese prisoner-of-war camp, plus a sinister looking wooden phantom head embedded with real human teeth.
Another theme explored in the London-based museum is dental phobia. The exhibition’s final section, entitled Our Friend the Dentist, considers why anxiety remains so high despite the many technological advances. It is certainly easy to understand the fears of early dental patients judging by the rudimentary tools available at the time. A 17th century sculpture of a tooth extraction looks a particularly unpleasant experience.
• Teeth runs until 16 September, 2018 at the Wellcome Collection museum in Euston Road, London. Admission is free. Find out more on the Wellcome Collection website
PHOTOS from top (courtesy of Wellcome Collection): A French dentist showing a specimen of his artifical teeth and false palates, coloured engraving, 1811; Napoleon Bonaparte's toothbrush with silver handle and horsehair bristles, 1790-1820; instrument set for Queen Victoria's dentist Sir Edwin Saunders (1814-1901).