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The curious collection of masks made by an orthodontic pioneer

a photo of a grouping of plaster casts in a display case

The Northcroft Masks at the Dental Museum. Courtesy British Dental Association

Sophie Riches, curator at the British Orthodontic Society Museum in London, on their collection of eerie masks showing the development and growth of the face

George Northcroft (b.1869) was a notable dentist who had an interest in the growth and development of the face.

He decided to take casts of all three of his children to help him measure this. Sadly we’ve only got William’s in the collection – we don’t know what happened to the others, they may have been lost in the Blitz, but his masks are quite striking – when you first see them all lined up they do come across as death masks, which is particularly unsettling as some of them are of a young child.

He began taking casts of his son William’s face and mouth when he was just 25 days old and continued each year on his birthday until he was 21, although we only have the masks from the age of six. The masks in our collection are full face masks and they were made of plaster which William described as ‘getting quite hot’. The plaster was dripped onto the face and by the end it would weigh 2-3lbs. A straw in each nostril allowed William to breathe but he remembered getting into trouble one year for chewing while the mask was taken. Northcroft also took mouth models of the teeth at the same time.

a close up of a plaster face mask

William Northcroft age 17. Courtesy The British Dental Association

a black and white photo of a middle aged man in a suit

George Northcroft. Courtesy The British Dental Association

a plaster face mask of a child with a cutaway showing the teeth and jaw

William Northcroft age 7. Courtesy The British Dental Association

The models are one of the earliest longitudinal studies of three-dimensional facial growth. Northcroft gave an important lecture on the growth of the teeth and jaws in 1924, which was one of the first lectures on orthodontics given in the UK. Orthodontists at the time were trying to work out why and how teeth grew where they did and Northcroft’s models were important in helping this work.

He also designed something called a Prosopometer, which was a way of measuring the face. It’s quite an interesting device that fits over the face and takes three measurements which are recorded on a paper graph on the side.

In 1988 laser scans and a further plaster cast was taken of William Northcroft, then 72, by Jim Moss, the curator of the BSSO Museum. The results were analysed and demonstrated that the occlusion (or position of the teeth) continues to change as individuals grow. Further scans were taken by Jim Moss when William was 81, 82 and 88.

Northcroft is an interesting figure; a prominent dentist, he had gone to America to obtain his dental qualification, qualifying from the University of Michigan in 1890. On his return he gained a further qualification from the London School of Dental Surgery in 1892. It was while studying in America that he developed an interest in orthodontics, which is the treatment of irregularities of the teeth.

The Dentists Register had started in 1879 as a result of the Dentists Act of 1878, which meant only those with a qualification could call themselves ‘dentists’, but there were still lots of people practising, using words like treatment rooms and things like that. So there was some quite brutal dentistry going on, but at Northcroft’s level it would have been quite expensive to go to the dentist – especially for orthodontics, which was really only affordable by the wealthy.

a photo of a woman in a white coat wearing a measring contraption across her face and head

An illustration of Northcroft’s Prosopometer, which was used to measure the face. Courtesy The British Dental Association

a photo of a head contraption measuring devices and Meccano-like pieces of metal

The Prosopometer. Courtesy The British Dental Association

a photo of a woman in side profile wearing a measring contraption across her face and head

Side view of Northcroft’s Prosopometer in action. Courtesy The British Dental Association

He started out in Windsor for about eight years, and then two of his sisters (he had 17 brothers and sisters) purchased a house on Harley Street and he set up his practice there, which is where he stayed throughout his career. It was attended by members of the European royal families and various famous people of the time.

In 1907 he invited a group of colleagues to his practice to discuss establishing an orthodontic society and this became the British Society for the Study of Orthodontics (BSSO). He was a member of several other dental societies and was involved in dental politics, taking an active role in the negotiations for the 1921 Dentists Act. This Act allowed only qualified dentists to practise.

He also worked with Professor William Wright when they opened the famous Urn from Westminster Abbey.

Wright and Northcroft were old friends, in fact they had previously been involved in setting up a dental school together and were golf buddies. So when Wright was asked to open the Westminster Abbey Urn believed to contain the bodies of the Princes in the Tower, Edward V and his brother Richard, Duke of York, he asked Northcroft to help him. The Urn was taken to Northcroft’s practice and he analysed the bones and X-rayed them, concluding that they came from boys of the right age (12 and 10). Northcroft firmly believed them to be the princes.

So Northcroft is important to the history of orthodontics and to the BOS Museum. He helped start the museum in 1908 and donated many items to it.

Find out more about the British Orthodontic Museum collection at www.bos.org.uk/Museum-and-Archive

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The BOS Museum has a collection of over 2000 objects, books and archives representing orthodontic diagnosis, treatment and research. The collection contains orthodontic appliances, tools and equipment, commercial records, clinical records and appliances, measuring equipment, research models and documents, films, photographs, educational resources, and archives and objects relating to the…

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