Secrets of the Tooth Fairy

Secrets of the Tooth Fairy

Mon 25 Jun

At my dentist's the most painful part of the visit is the canned music he uses to calm his patients down. But it could be worse. In Paris in the eighteenth century, a dentist used his strength and pliers to bodily lift people by their rotting tooth alone. He let the weight of body do the work, whilst the patient was being watched by onlookers who had paid for the privilege.

This and many more arcane facts can be discovered at the Wellcome Institute - nearly opposite Euston Station - where the current free exhibition about dentistry goes on until September.

One of the saddest pictures in the exhibition is of about one hundred toothbrushes hanging on hooks, each with the name of a patient incarcerated in a mental asylum, who couldn’t be trusted with their own toothbrush. Indeed, prisoners often melt the other end of plastic toothbrushes and insert razor blades into them, to use was as weapons.

Strangely one of the first people to make a toothbrush was a Mr Addis, when he was a prisoner, in the eighteenth century when he was imprisoned for rioting. Before that it was chewing sticks. And the sticks were mainly owned by the rich.

The association between bad teeth and criminality is more to do with poverty, although the clenched-teeth portrait of George Washington on the dollar bill was to hide his false teeth, (not made of wood as is often alleged). He paid $60 for four ivory sets, about $1,000 dollars now. After the battle of Waterloo most dead soldiers had their teeth removed and they were sold to the rich as false teeth.

The recently released pictures of Adolf Hitler’s teeth, the only part of him that could be salvaged, fortunately, from the ruined bunker, showed that his gnashers needed more work done on them than all the dentists in Germany could have mustered.

The Hollywood smile, so beloved of Americans, and invariably achieved at great and painful expense, was not the ideal of beauty in nineteenth-century Japan where Geishas used to blacken their teeth. Many tribal people still file down their teeth.

The first major book on dentistry, is also one of the world’s most beautifully illustrated medical books written by John Hunter in 1771. It was also a dentist who first came up with anaesthetics, initially laughing gas, which proved a disaster and then ether, and then cocaine.

In the eighteenth century doctors and surgeons considered dentistry as something barbers did. But the strange thing is that if you have a toothache it is hardly possible to do anything else as Queen Elizabeth discovered.

The patron saint of dentists was Saint Appollonia, who was tortured  to give up her faith, by having her teeth removed with pliers. I think it must have been the pain rather than her willingness to be with God that encouraged her to jump into the fire.

When conscription was brought in during the First World War many applicants had to be rejected because of the appalling state of their teeth. This eventually led to the setting-up, painful decades later, of the National Health Service.

One of the most poignant parts of the exhibition is the small selection of letters from children to the tooth fairy. Especially the only one where the tooth fairy writes back. Judging by the style and length of the letter she must have recently studied English on a Creative Writing course, because she does that dreadful thing so common in emails of not putting her name and address at the beginning of the letter. This omission makes it impossible for me to write back and ask what do the fairies do with the teeth?

Review by drif field.

wellcomecollection.org

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