The early Christian Church taught the “virtue” of suffering. Pain in our messed-up world was God’s will. It intensified faith.
Thinkers of the Enlightenment rejected such notions. Having declared medical practice and religious doctrine as being incompatible, they initiated research in anesthetics. In 1799, chemist Humphry Davy undertook his exploration of the therapeutic potential of nitrous oxide (laughing gas).
The benefits of this gas were not fully tested for some time, which opened up opportunities for quacks to fool an eager but gullible public.
Young Samuel Colt, working at his father’s textile plant in Ware, Massachusetts, was obsessed by explosives and revolvers. Lacking the funds to further his ideas, he was informed by the firm’s chemist about a “miracle” gas named nitrous oxide. Smelling an opportunity, he took a portable laboratory on tour and gave demonstrations across the United States and Canada, calling himself the “Celebrated Dr Coult of New York, London, and Calcutta.” He started talking gas on street corners, proceeded to address halls and academies, but sensed that his presentations lacked an element of “sensation” that would hold the public’s breath.
Having teamed up with neoclassical sculptor Hiram Powers (who would later gain an international reputation as an artist), they decided that the spectacle needed a narrative of salvation and redemption. Borrowing infernal themes from Dante’s Divina Commedia, Powers supplied wax sculptures and paintings depicting demons, centaurs, and mummies. Samuel concocted a fireworks display to complete the show. Having refined his lecturing skills, Colt turned into a professional pitchman who mesmerized his audience.
In the end, his demonstrations of laughing gas inhalation solely served to raise money for bringing his revolver prototype into production. In 1835 he patented a pistol and founded the Patent Arms Company in Paterson, New Jersey. Medicine man turned handgun manufacturer.
Colt was not the only traveling gas man. Former medical student Gardner Quincy Colton also dealt with the application of laughing gas. In December 1844, he gave a performance in Hartford, Connecticut. In the audience was Horace Wells, a local dentist who had mastered the art of using new materials to make dentures. He now sought ways of easing the pain of pulling the patient’s teeth. Wells realized that he might have found a remedy when he observed a man who had inhaled the gas injuring himself without showing any sign of distress.
Having been alerted to the promise of nitrous oxide in dentistry, Gardner founded the Colton Dental Association. Between 1864 and 1897, he and his associates used the gas in tens of thousands of tooth extractions. Hailed as the greatest blessing of the age, anesthetics eased the suffering of patients and gave an impetus to the manufacture of dentures.
The popularity of coffee and tea in the eighteenth century caused a surge in demand for refined sugar. It increased the demand for slave labor and rotted the nation’s teeth. People dreaded losing their gnashers. The toothless had sunken cheeks and looked old before their time. The answer – for those who could afford it – was a set of replacement teeth that were made from ivory (hippopotamus, walrus, or elephant). As dentistry was a largely unregulated profession, treatment was painful and full of risk.
By the mid-eighteenth century the English term tooth-drawer was replaced by the word dentist which was borrowed from the French dentiste (a derivative of dent = tooth) and its Latin ancestors. The history of modern dentistry starts in France. Pioneer of the profession was Pierre Fauchard who in 1728 penned the first comprehensive scientific description of odontology in Le chirurgien dentist.
The making of porcelain dentures was invented in 1744 by Alexis Duchateau, but the procedure was improved by Nicolas Dubois de Chémant for which he was granted a patent by Louis XVI. In 1788 he published a Dissertation sur les avantages de nouvelles dents (translated in 1816 as A Dissertation on Artificial Teeth). In 1791 he escaped the French Revolution, settled in London, and established himself in Frith Street, near Soho Square. By 1804, he claimed to have made 12,000 sets of false teeth. De Chémant brought back a smile to British upper classes. In 1811, Thomas Rowlandson produced a famous caricature of him treating a female patient.
In the United States, George Washington had suffered dental problems since he was a young man. When inaugurated as President in 1789, he had a single natural tooth left. He took the Oath of Office wearing a set of dentures made of hippo ivory, brass, and gold produced for the grand occasion by his New York dentist John Greenwood. After George lost this last tooth, he gifted it to Greenwood as a keepsake (it’s now in the collection of New York’s Academy of Medicine).
The most desirable dentures were made of an ivory base and set with human teeth, the supplies of which were scarce and prices high. The biggest teeth purveyors were body snatchers.
The English “Bloody Code” of laws and punishments was in force from the 15th century. By the early 19th century more than two hundred offenses carried the death penalty, including the theft of anything worth more than five shillings or stealing cattle. Early anatomical schools had a steady supply of dead bodies.
During the 1830s the number of capital offenses was gradually reduced both in Britain and the United States. Opposition to traditional hanging days also increased. Many states enacted laws providing private executions. Rhode Island (1833), Pennsylvania (1834), New York (1835), Massachusetts (1835), and New Jersey (1835) abolished the “festival” of public hangings. At the same time, with the rapid expansion of medical schools in an increasingly urban society, the demand for cadavers climbed steeply.
For body snatchers, teeth were a business perk. Even if a corpse had deteriorated too much for classroom anatomy, the suppliers could still sell its teeth. At times, graves were disturbed just to obtain possession of the stiff’s teeth which offered sufficient profit for the effort incurred in such undertakings. In a competitive field, dentists paid good money.
The evening of June 18, 1815 was a momentous one. After twenty-three years of war in Europe, Napoleon faced the combined might of the allied forces at Waterloo. When the battle was over, the French were defeated and 50,000 men lay dead or wounded on the field of slaughter.
At sundown, looters went about their sinister work. In the gloom, shadowy figures flitted from corpse to corpse, gathering up soldiers’ weapons, and looking for any valuables tucked inside their torn uniforms. A final act of desecration would follow. Scavengers pulled and pocketed any intact front teeth.
There was nothing new in taking teeth from the dead to replace those lost by the living, but on this occasion the scale was different. The market was flooded with second-hand teeth. Dentures acquired a new name: Waterloo Teeth. Far from putting clients off, the tag was a selling point. Better to have teeth from a fit young man killed in battle than those removed from the jaws of a decaying corpse or a hanged man.
After years of conflict, there were so many spare samples that they were shipped by the barrel to the United States. In 1819, dentist Levi Spear Parmly, the “father of dental hygiene in America” and the inventor of dental floss, wrote that he had in his possession “thousands of teeth extracted from bodies of all ages that have fallen in battle.” Some came from the the War of 1812’s Battle of Lundy’s Lane in Niagara County, NY.
Towards the middle part of the century, the use of human teeth in dentures declined. After a series of riots in American cities, so-called “bone bills” were passed to legislate the supply of cadavers. In Britain, the 1832 Anatomy Act licensed movements of corpses. More importantly from a dental perspective, new products were emerging that could take the place of real teeth.
Porcelain and Ebonite
Claudius Ash, the son of a London gold- and silversmith, developed an interest in dentistry whilst acting as a surgeon at Waterloo. He was one of the first to market the after-battle teeth he had extracted. In 1837, disgusted with handling dead men’s teeth, Ash experimented with porcelain dentures. Such products had been around for some time, but early ceramic teeth were too white and brittle, and made a horrid grating noise. Soon he started manufacturing porcelain teeth mounted on gold plates, with springs and wire to hold them in place. By the mid-nineteenth century his dentures dominated the European market.
Working in Philadelphia in 1843, chemist and engineer Charles Goodyear discovered how to produce a more flexible ebonite from India rubber. In 1851, his brother Nelson patented an improved manufacturing process and vulcanized rubber found instant use in the fabrication of denture bases as it was significantly cheaper than ivory.
Porcelain and vulcanized rubber did not replace the use of human teeth, the supply of which to dentists remained unchecked. The moniker “Waterloo” had become applicable to any set of teeth pilfered from the mouth of a dead soldier. They continued being in use throughout the Crimean War and still appeared on offer in British dental supply catalogues of the 1860s, as they were shipped in bulk from the battlefields of the American Civil War across the Atlantic.
The introduction of vulcanized rubber in dental practice followed on the heels of the widespread application of anesthesia in surgery. With the pain of extraction reduced, people were less anxious to have their teeth pulled out. Once the luxury of a privileged elite, for the first time in history dentures were made available to the toothless public at large. Dentistry opened up a democracy of false teeth.
Illustrations, from above: first edition of Le chirurgien dentist by Pierre Fauchard (1728); Illustration of the 1788 ‘Doctor’s Riot’ in an 1882 Harper’s magazine story entitled ‘An Interrupted Dissection’; French dentist shewing a specimen of his artificial teeth and false palates (February 1811) by Thomas Rowlandson; Artificial Teeth courtesy BDA Dental Museum; and Victorian dentistry courtesy News Dog Media.
James S. Kaplan says
Ellen Fine says
So interesting. Thank you
Ed Zahniser says
Great story for all we who are dentalphobes to this day.! Thanks,