On the frosted
glass door of a Victorian dental surgery I have seen the catchy
promotional slogan TEETH CAREFULLY EXTRACTED. I'm glad they were
careful, since the process was no doubt seriously painful. Humphry Davy
had discovered the anaesthetic properties of laughing gas way back in
1799, but no one paid any attention, and it wasn't until 1846 that an
American dentist began to use ether to put his patients to sleep. In the
1850s Dr John Snow gave chloroform to Queen Victoria during childbirth,
and then anaesthetics became all the rage.
False teeth were
rather primitive in those days. The best available were 'Waterloo teeth'
- real teeth allegedly pulled with pliers from the mouths of corpses on
the battlefield, although most were probably acquired by grave robbing.
These teeth were jammed into sockets drilled in plates of hippo jaw,
which then fitted roughly over the gums. To make sure they opened with
the mouth they were fitted with springs to push the two plates apart.
There were two disadvantages; because they were real teeth they rotted
like normal teeth, and, if one of the springs snagged, the entire set of
teeth was likely to jump out in the middle of a posh dinner, and land in
someone else’s soup…
I have several
false teeth. At school I had a front tooth knocked out by a cricket
ball; it was replaced first by a plastic tooth on a plastic plate, and
later by a bridge. And in the last couple of years my much-filled teeth
have begun to crumble and split – a chunk fell off recently when I bit
too savagely into a potato crisp. So I have two porcelain crowns, which
give excellent service.
seem to have wonderful teeth, and rarely get a cavity or need a filling,
whereas fifty years ago, before there was fluoride in the water, our
teeth were softer and more likely to decay. We did have anaesthetics
when I was a lad, but only for serious treatments like having a tooth
pulled out; so teeth were generally a pain.
In The Lost
Smile (Radio 4, Monday, 11.02 a.m.) we learn that in 1948 false
teeth became available for free on the National Health, and there was a
mad rush, and great queues outside every dentist. For their 21st
birthday present, many people were treated to total extraction, and a
new porcelain smile. These days dentures are no longer considered to be
a beauty statement; the queues, though, seem not to have disappeared.