Dead Men’s Teeth: A History of Dentures

827034-001I remember as a little girl being utterly terrified at my great-grandmother’s dentures. The first time that I ever realized that she had false teeth was when I found them peculiarly suspended in a glass of water on the kitchen counter. The jaw was unhinged, as if it was perpetually locked in a ghastly scream. Another time, the dentures were simply sat on her bedside table, grinning horribly at me like some kind of sick advertisement for why children should brush their teeth at night.

I wondered if all ‘old’ people had these frightening contraptions.

Now that I’m all grown up (sorta), I recognize that modern dentures are far less scary than their predecessors, which are truly the stuff of nightmares.

L0043833 Napoleon Bonaparte's ToothbrushIt probably will not come as a surprise to most readers that people in the past suffered from tooth decay the same as we do today. Early toothbrushes with their horsehair bristles (see Napoleon’s, right) often caused more problems than they prevented, and toothpastes or powders made from pulverized charcoal, chalk, brick or salt were more harmful than helpful in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Most of us have had cavities in our lives. Some of us are even old enough to have had them filled with amalgam, a mixture of mercury, silver, tin and copper. But in earlier periods, having a cavity filled was not an option. Once a tooth began to rot, one had little choice but to have it pulled, sans anaesthetic.

In the 18th century, the tooth key was the preferred tool for pulling teeth. The claw was placed over the top of the decaying tooth; the bolster, or the long metal rod, was placed against the root. The key was then turned and, if all went well, the tooth would pop out of the socket. Unfortunately, this did not always go to plan. Often, the tooth shattered as the key was turned and had to be plucked from the bleeding gum tissue piece by piece.

As time progressed, incidents of tooth decay rose as sugar and tobacco became more readily available, creating a market for dentures. Early versions were made of ivory or animal bone, and typically incorporated the teeth of executed criminals or exhumed bodies. See, for example, George Washington’s dentures.

When the first President of the United States was inaugurated in 1789, he only had one remaining tooth left in his mouth. Dr John Greenwood—a dentist from New York, and former soldier in the Revolutionary War—fashioned a set of dentures from hippopotamus ivory, using gold wire springs and brass screws to hold together the human teeth he had procured. There was even a hole left for his one remaining tooth.

D4

Photo courtesy of the New York Academy of Medicine

Contraptions like this were cumbersome and painful to wear. But more so, these teeth were often plucked from the mouths of those who had died from syphilis, thus infecting their new owners when contaminated tissue came into contact with open wounds in the mouth.

What practitioners really needed was access to young, healthy teeth. That opportunity presented itself during the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, which led to the deaths of 51,000 men, many of whom left behind a perfectly lovely set of teeth after they shuffled off this mortal coil.

‘Waterloo Teeth,’ as they were known, referred to any teeth stolen from the mouths of dead soldiers in the 19th century, and was a term even employed during the Crimean and American Civil Wars. Body-snatchers followed armies into battle, and returned home with bagfuls of teeth which they then sold to dentists and surgeons for a very high premium.

D1As superior as these dentures were to older versions, they still carried with them the stigma of underworld thievery, which didn’t sit well with the toothless upper-classes. Eventually, dentists were forced to develop new techniques using new materials (such as porcelain) to create dentures that didn’t require the use of dead men’s teeth.

Still, this practice continued well into the 19th century, prompting a Professor of Anatomy at Trinity College to remark on the hypocrisy of the rich about their attitudes towards bodysnatching:

I do not think the upper and middle classes have understood the effects of their own conduct when they take part in impeding the process of dissection…very many of the upper ranks carry in their mouths teeth which have been buried in the hospital fields. [1]

And, of course, the teeth of those who died fighting on the battlefield.

1. Qtd in Ruth Richardson, Death, Dissection and the Destitute (1987; repr. 2000), p. 106.

Announcing the Launch of Grave Matters 

GraveMatters

I don’t like to brag (okay, I do) but I know an amazing number of talented people. One of them is Chris Skaife, Yeoman Warder (Beefeater) and Ravenmaster at the Tower of London.  Together, he and I have launched a new website which will focuses primarily on the history of crime and punishment; and what happened to criminals before, during and after execution. We’ve got a lot of gruesome things planned for the site, so please do check it out if you are interested. Our first post is on ‘5 Shocking Facts from the Scaffold’ – you won’t believe some of the stories we’ve dug up!

Click Grave Matters to visit the website. And make sure you “like” our page on Facebook to keep up-to-date on the latest articles!

The Syphilitic Whores of Georgian London

harrisPeople think I’m obsessed with syphilis, and maybe I am. But it’s only because of my recent indoctrination into 18th-century history by aficionados of the period, such as Lucy Inglis, Adrian Teal and Rob Lucas.  I can’t read 10 pages of a medical casebook without coming across a reference to lues venerea. By the end of the century, London was literally crawling with the pox.

And it’s no surprise. Sexual promiscuity was as much a part of Georgian England as were powdered wigs and opium. For a few pennies, a gentleman could pick up Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, or Man of Pleasure’s Kalendar—a pocket guide to London’s prostitutes published annually starting in 1771—and peruse it as he might do a fine wine list.

For three guineas, a man could partake in the pleasures provided by Miss L—st—r at No. 6 Union Street, whose ‘neighbouring hills [are] full ripe for manual pressure, firm, and elastic, and heave at every touch.’ [1] If three guineas were too much, one could always spend a third of that for a night with Miss H—ll—nd at No. 2 York Street, who, ‘tho’ only seventeen and short, is very fat and corpulent…a luscious treat to the voluptuary.’ [2]  And for those who fancied a woman ‘rather above the common height’, they could visit Miss S—ms at No. 82 Queen Ann’s Street East, who frequently attracted lovers of a ‘diminutive size’ who loved ‘surmounting such a fine, tall woman.’ [3]

L0033923 A prostitute leading an old man into the bedroomThe guidebook wasn’t all slap and tickle, though. Hidden within these pages were warnings about the dangers of sleeping with diseased prostitutes.  Military men were cautioned against Matilda Johnson, since ‘it is thought by some experienced officers, that her citadel is in danger, on account of a quantity of fiery combustible matter which is lodged in the covered way.’ Some warnings were not so subtle (or hilarious). The guidebook alerts its readers to Miss Young, who had ‘very lately had the folly and wickedness to leave a certain hospital, before the cure for a certain distemper which she had was completed.’ The book ominously adds that she has ‘thrown her contaminated carcass on the town again.’ [4]

Yes, syphilis was ubiquitous in 18th-century London. Aside from abstaining or entering into a monogamous relationship with a healthy partner, there was very little one could do to protect oneself from the pox. Condoms, though available during this period, were rarely employed. When used, they were frequently reused multiple times, defeating their purpose as safeguards against contamination.

SyphilisThat said, the telltale signs of the disease could often be seen on those suffering from the pox, allowing the astute observer to steer clear of infected persons. In this wax moulage (left) by the talented artist, Nicole Antebi, you can see the effects of the disease on the face and mouth. Blemishes such as these came to be associated with prostitution. Georgian women went to great lengths to cover these marks with ‘beauty spots’ made of fine black velvet, or mouse skin.

Those who suffered from the pox often turned to surgeons for help. Before the discovery of penicillin, syphilis was an incurable (and ultimately fatal) disease. The longer it went on, the worse the symptoms became. In addition to unsightly skin ulcers like the ones mentioned above, sufferers could experience paralysis, blindness, dementia and ‘saddle nose‘, a grotesque deformity which occurs when the bridge of the nose caves into the face.

L0034508 A patient suffering from the adverse effects of mercury treatMany treatments involved the use of mercury, which could be administered in the form of calomel (mercury chloride), an ointment, a steam bath or pill. Unfortunately, the side effects could be as painful and terrifying as the disease itself (see illustration, right, of patient suffering from over-exposure to mercury). Many patients who underwent such treatments suffered from extensive tooth loss, ulcerations and neurological damage. In many cases, people died from mercury poisoning. Indeed, it’s hard to fault Miss Young for throwing her ‘contaminated carcass on the town again’ after refusing to continue treatment that most likely included mercury.

Prostitutes bore the brunt of it when it came to syphilis in Georgian London. Yet despite the dangers, women entered into the profession at an astonishing rate. An estimated 1 in 5 women were ‘Ladies of the Night’ during this period. Some entered the sex trade as young as 12 years of age; and many could expect to make as much as £400 per year. [5]

Still, the financial advantages of prostitution meant little if one contracted the deadly disease. The two syphilitic women mentioned above did not appear in later editions of Harris’s List. Their fates were sealed once their secrets had been exposed. No doubt countless other women suffered the same future after they became infected, losing not only their livelihoods, but also their lives to this dreadful epidemic.

Am I obsessed with syphilis? Yes. But for good reason!

1. Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies or Man of Pleasure’s Kalendar for the Year (1788), p. 16.
2. Ibid., p. 18.
3. Ibid., p. 36
4. These two examples come from Harris’s List (1779); however, I originally found them in Wendy Moore’s excellent book, The Knife Man: Blood, Body-Snatching and The Birth of Modern Science (2005), p. 127.
5. These facts and figures can be found in Dan Cruickshank’s book, The Secret History of Georgian London (2010).

The Battle of the Tooth Worm

_toothwormI come across a lot of strange objects in my research: books bound in human skin, prosthetic noses made of silver, iron coffins with safety devices to prevent premature burial. But perhaps one of the strangest objects I’ve seen is the one pictured on the left.

This is a depiction of the infamous tooth worm believed by many people in the past to bore holes in human teeth and cause toothaches.  But before I tell you about this fascinating piece of art, let me give you a quick lesson in dental folklore.

Tooth worms have a long history, first appearing in a Sumerian text around 5,000 BC. References to tooth worms can be found in China, Egypt and India long before the belief finally takes root (pun intended) into Western Europe in the 8th century. [1]

Treatment of tooth worms varied depending on the severity of the patient’s pain. Often, practitioners would try to ‘smoke’ the worm out by heating a mixture of beeswax and henbane seed on a piece of iron and directing the fumes into the cavity with a funnel. Afterwards, the hole was filled with powered henbane seed and gum mastic.  This may have provided temporary relief given the fact that henbane is a mild narcotic. Many times, though, the achy tooth had to be removed altogether. Some tooth-pullers mistook nerves for tooth worms, and extracted both the tooth and the nerve in what was certainly an extremely painful procedure in a period before anaesthetics. [2]

_Toothworm3The tooth worm came under attack in the 18th century when Pierre Fauchard—known today as the father of modern dentistry—posited that tooth decay was linked to sugar consumption and not little creatures burrowing inside the tooth. In the 1890s, W.D. Miller took this idea a step further, and discovered through a series of experiments that bacteria living inside the mouth produced acids that dissolved tooth enamel when in the presence of fermentable carbohydrates.

Despite these discoveries, many people continued to believe in the existence of tooth worms even into the 20th century.

The piece of art at the top of the article is titled ‘The Tooth Worm as Hell’s Demon.’ It was created in the 18th century by an unknown artist, and is carved from ivory. It is an incredibly intricate piece when you consider it only stands a little over 4 inches tall. The two halves open up to reveal a scene about the infernal torments of a toothache depicted as a battle with the tooth worm, complete with mini skulls, hellfire, and naked humans wielding clubs.

_toothworm4

It is, without a doubt, one of the strangest objects I’ve come across in my research; and today, I pass this random bit of trivia on to you in the hopes that you may use it someday to revive a dying conversation at a cocktail party.

1. W. E. Gerabek, ‘The Tooth-Worm: Historical Apsects of a Popular Belief,’ Clinical Oral Investigations (April 1999): pp. 1-6.
2. Leo Kanner, Folklore of the Teeth (1928).

Piss Prophets & The Wheel of Urine

L0030213 U. Binder, Epiphaniae medicorum, 1506.I recently watched an episode of Dr Oz in which he pontificated about the colour of some unfortunate woman’s urine in front of millions of viewers. She offered up a cup of what looked like diluted molasses to the good doctor for judgement. ‘Dehydration,’ Dr Oz decreed.  ‘More water!’

(As if she didn’t have a sneaky suspicion of this already from the looks of the dark, murky fluid residing in the bottom of the plastic cup.)

Watching this spectacle reminded me of the medieval urine wheel used to diagnose disease based on the colour, smell and taste of a person’s urine. And yes, I did say taste. I’ll return to that point in a minute.

Before stethoscopes, blood tests and x-rays, a pot of pee was a crucial diagnostic tool. Due to the enduring influence of the Greco-Roman physician, Galen (131-201 AD), medical practitioners believed that urine was vital in gauging the health of a person’s liver, where blood was thought to be produced. Analysing urine was the best way to determine whether a patient’s four humours (blood, phlegm, yellow and black bile) were in balance.

The wheel consisted of 20 colours ranging from ‘white as wellwater’ to ‘ruddy as pure intense gold’ and lastly ‘black as very dark horn.’ George III (1738-1820) reportedly had purple urine. This could have been a sign of a rare condition known as porphyria which can manifest itself in many of the neurological disorders for which the ‘Mad King’ was known.

M0013714 Miniature: a physician examining a urine flask.Of course, examining a person’s urine inside a dark chamber pot proved problematic, so practitioners created a round-bottomed glass flask shaped like a bladder called a matula. Indeed, the image of the doctor holding up the urine-filled flask to the light came to epitomize medicine during this period, and is still a recognized symbol today.

The smell and taste of a patient’s urine were equally important when determining a course of treatment, and often corresponded with specific colours. In 1674, the English physician Thomas Willis described the urine of a diabetic as ‘wonderfully sweet as if it were imbued with honey or sugar.’ He also noted that diabetic urine was often the colour of honey, something observed by earlier practitioners using the urine wheel. Willis went on to coin the term mellitus (literally honey sweet) in diabetes mellitus, and for a long time, the condition was known as ‘Willis’s disease.’

The urine wheel may not have been useful in diagnosing diseases as we understand them today; however, it was used in standard practice during the medieval period. By the 16th and 17th centuries, urine wheels had become so prolific due to the printing press that all sorts of people were using them, including unlicensed medical practitioners, or quacks. The practice of uroscopy—using urine to analyse a patient’s health—soon turned into uromancy, which was something altogether different.

L0025265 A physician examining a flask of urine brought by a young woUromancy is the art of divination using urine. Piss prophets (as they were known) each had a different method for predicting the future. Some took omens from the urine’s colour; others from its taste. Most commonly, piss prophets ‘read the bubbles’ seconds after it hit the divination bowl. The presence of large bubbles spread far apart signified that the urinator was about to come into a lot of money. Conversely, the presence of small bubbles packed tightly together signified illness, loss or the death of a loved one. Even pregnant women visited piss prophets to the hopes of learning the sex of their babies.

Today, physicians no longer taste our urine, nor do they spend much time contemplating its smell or colour (Dr Oz aside). That said, asking a patient to pee into an impossibly tiny cup is not an uncommon request, as anyone entering a hospital or medical office today knows. One can’t help but think the experience would be much more enjoyable if the doctor, upon being presented with the warm cup of cloudy liquid, poured it into a divination bowl and told us we were all going to be rich.

Just like him.

The Dangers of [Georgian] Vanity

Huzzar2The other day, I walked through the makeup section of a department store just outside of Chicago. Every step of the way, I was bombarded by sales attendants trying to sell me the latest anti-aging potions. There was Rodial Snake Venom—an anti-wrinkle cream which allegedly simulates the paralysing effects of a viper bite to reduce expression lines in the face—as well as a host of other products including Freeze 24/7, which purports to be a ‘clinically proven dream cream.’ Topping the list of quack remedies was the ‘Vampire Facelift,’ a non-surgical procedure involving the reinjection of gel-like substance derived from the patient’s own blood.

With all these products on the market today, you might think that we are uniquely obsessed with finding eternal youth. Yet, people in the 18th century were equally concerned with turning back the hands of time, and their beauty regime could be just as futile (and toxic) as our own.

Read the full article on Huzzar: The 18th-Century Inspired Fashion and Lifestyle Webzine.

Death & Childhood in Victorian England

CD2I remember many childhood days spent propped up on my grandmother’s couch with a tower of pillows. I’d watch the day peacefully unfold from her picture window. One month, it was bronchitis. The next, it was pneumonia. My mother—then a nursing student—rushed me in and out of doctors’ offices and emergency rooms, where I was poked, prodded and eventually sent home with a bag full of medications.

Principals were notified; classes were missed. Friends brought armfuls of heavy books home each day after school with daily assignments. I’d hear their voices in the other room but never see their faces. Contagion was always a risk.

This was the life of a sick child.

At the time, I felt incredibly sorry for myself. Why couldn’t I enjoy good health like the rest of my girlfriends? Why did I have to stay indoors day after day, and swallow pills that made me nauseated and dizzy?

Years on, however, I began to realise that I was actually very lucky.  This wasn’t just the life of a sick child. This was the life of a sick child in the 1980s.

Today, we often associate death with old age. But we don’t have to go back far in history to find a time when childhood was both dangerous and deadly.

CD3Victorian children were at risk of dying from a lot of diseases that we’ve eradicated or can control in the 21st century, like smallpox, measles, whooping cough, diphtheria, and dysentery (to name just a few). Death was a common visitor to Victorian households; and the younger one was, the more vulnerable he or she would be.

In 1856, Archibald Tait—the future Archbishop of Canterbury—lost five children in just as many weeks to scarlet fever. [1] When the fever wasn’t fatal, it nearly always weakened the child who often died months or even years later from complications.  Indeed, this is the fate of Beth in Louisa May Alcott’s famous book, Little Women (1868/9).

Tuberculosis was also a common killer in the 19th century. On 26 April 1870, Louisa Baldwin (mother of the future prime minister, Stanley Baldwin) wrote in her diary:

I paid a sad call at the Worths where 2 children seem to be at the point of dying, the poor terrible little baby has constant fits & little Madge two years old, who has been ill 12 days with congestion of the lungs. This is the second time I’ve seen them in this illness…we went into next door where we saw poor little Miss Lee evidently very near the end, but sweet and affectionate as ever. [2]

_8No one was immune. The great scientist, Charles Darwin, lost his 10-year-old daughter, Annie [left], to tuberculosis in 1851. In his personal memoir, the grief-stricken father wrote: ‘We have lost the joy of the household, and the solace of our old age…Oh that she could now know how deeply, how tenderly we do still & and shall ever love her dear joyous face.’ [3] By the mid-19th century, tuberculosis accounted for as many as 60,000 children’s deaths per year. [4]

Literature from the period reflects the prevalence of children’s deaths in Victorian England. The dying child makes a frequent appearance in 19th-century novels. In Charles Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop (1841), the character of Little Nell dies at the end of the story, much to the dismay of many readers. When describing the scene to his illustrator, George Cattermole, the novelist wrote:

The child lying dead in the little sleeping room, which is behind the open screen. It is winter-time, so there are no flowers; but upon her breast and pillow, and about her bed, there may be strips of holly and berries, and such free green things. Window overgrown with ivy. The little boy who had that talk with her about angels may be by the bedside, if you like it so; but I think it will be quieter and more peaceful if she is alone. I want it to express the most beautiful repose and tranquility, and to have something of a happy look, if death can…I am breaking my heart over this story, and cannot bear to finish it. [5]

CD4Though children died with frequent regularity during the Victorian period, a child’s death was still seen as particularly tragic. Even Dickens could not help but mourn the passing of his young, fictitious character [depicted by Cattermole, right].

As a historian, people often ask me if I would have liked to have lived in the past. My answer is always a resounding ‘NO!’ When you consider that only 40 per cent of children born in the 1850s reached their 60th birthday—and less than 10 per cent reached their 80th—I feel very lucky indeed to have been born in 1982.

My life expectancy is 78.

 

1. D. P. Helm ‘”A Sense of Mercies”: End of Life Care in the Victorian Home’ (Masters Thesis, University of Worcester, 2012), p. 15.
2. Diary of Louisa Baldwin 1870, 26th April 1870. Baldwin papers. 705:775/8229/7 (ii), Worcestershire Record Office. Originally quoted in Helm.
3. The original manuscript is in the Darwin Archive of Cambridge University Library (DAR 210.13). You can find the entire transcript online here.
4. J. Lane, A Social History of Medicine: Health, Healing and Disease in England 1750‐1950 (London, 2001), p.142.
5. Letter from Dickens to Cattermole.