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Vampires, tooth fairies and the dentist: The Wellcome Collection tackles teeth

a photo of a set of dentures with a loveheart carved into its palette

Denture with a loveheart. Courtesy Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images  CC BY 4.0

The Wellcome Collection is champing on the bit to explore the world of teeth

As the only visible part of the human skeleton, teeth are intrinsically linked to our identity. From the quest for a perfect Hollywood smile, to the providing of vital forensic clues in the aftermath of crime, warfare or natural catastrophe, our teeth reveal a lot about who we are.

And let’s not forget, as the Wellcome Collection’s summer exhibition reveals, fears and anxieties around teeth and a trip to the dentist have existed for centuries. Votives in Ancient Rome and amulets from the 19th century have been used to try and protect against pain – while the patron saint of dentistry, Saint Apollonia, was chosen because her martyrdom in 3rd century Alexandria included her teeth being shattered or violently pulled out.

The Wellcome’s fascinating exploration of our teeth takes in everything from vampires and tooth fairies to barber-surgeons and professional dentists and is inspired by The Smile Stealers by Richard Barnett, a grimly fascinating book charting the evolution of dentistry throughout the world from the Bronze Age to the present day.

It’s the first exhibition to chart the history of a profession that has shaped the way we live with, or without our teeth and features over 150 objects, including cartoons and caricatures, toothpaste advertisements and a terrifying range of chairs, drills and training tools have been drawn from the museum’s famous collection amassed by Sir Henry Wellcome as well as others including the British Dental Museum.

a caricature of Georgian grotesques in a drawing room watching a dentist

A fashionable dentist’s practice: healthy teeth are being extracted from poor children to create dentures for the wealthy. Coloured etching by T. Rowlandson, 1787. Thomas Rowlandson Published: 1790. Courtesy Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images  CC BY 4.0

a poster with an mage of a squirrel cleaning its teeth

A red squirrel cleaning its teeth with Binaca toothpaste. Colour lithograph by N. Stoecklin, 1944. Iconographic Collections Photographer: Laura Hart

a print showing a woman taking teeth from a hanged man

A woman covers her eyes as she steals the teeth of a hanged. Wellcome Library, London. Courtesy Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images  CC BY 4.0

The first scientific treatise on teeth, Le Chirugien-Dentiste (the Surgeon-Dentist), 1728, by Pierre Fauchard makes an appearance alongside examples of early techniques, tools and dentures made from hippopotamus ivory.

Examples of tooth care for the wealthy include the hygiene set used by Queen Victoria’s dentist, dentures belonging to King William IV and Napoleon’s toothbrush. The barber-surgeons and blacksmiths who performed extractions for the less privileged are depicted in paintings, with classic caricatures by Thomas Rowlandson contrasting the suffering of the poor with the ostentatious smiles of the wealthy as they display new, gleaming dentures.

The story of how the emerging technologies of the 19th and 20th centuries led to a more industrialised approach to tooth care charts the changing availability and affordability of consumer products such as toothpastes and brushes, as well as the evolution of dental drills, the use of x-rays and the advent of anaesthetic.

a photo of an old hinged cabinet with toothbrushes inside hanging from hooks

Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals. © Christopher Payne

a caricature of two men inspecting the teeth of a ;large woman

A French dentist showing a specimen of his artificial teeth and false palates.Thomas Rowlandson, 1811. Published: 1702-1878. Courtesy Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images  CC BY 4.0

a photo of a gold toothbrush

Napoleon Bonaparte’s Toothbrush. Courtesy Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images  CC BY 4.0

Giant mouths and oversized teaching tools from the collections of the University of Utrecht, Netherlands reveal techniques for training dentists, who had to practise on large models before moving to the intricacy of working inside a human mouth.

The idea of oral hygiene as a right and a responsibility is reflected through poster campaigns, advertisements, films and animations that show the ways in which we have been encouraged to look after our teeth, with protective routines to prevent decay.

The exhibition also explores the very particular relationship children have with the gaining and losing of teeth, how parents manage the idea of the tooth fairy and how they, dentists and new technologies can help combat anxiety.

a seventeenth century Dutch interior owht a man having his teeth pulled

Interior of a Dutch House with an operator attending to a man’s teeth. Wellcome Collection

a photo of a small pamphlet showing a before and after drawing of a woman with bad teeth and nice teeth

Are you afraid to laugh Goodall’s Dental Institute. Courtesy Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images  CC BY 4.0

a photo of an open wooden case with various instruments inside it

Dental instrument set made for Sir Edwin Sanders, 1814 – 1901, Dentist to Queen Victoria. Courtesy British Dental Association. Photo by Filip Gierlinkski

a black and white etching of Queen Elizabeth I

Historians have long conjectured about the condition of the teeth of Elizabeth I. Portrait of Elizabeth I, 1620, Wellcome Collection

TEETH runs at the Wellcome Collection, from May 17 to September 16 2018. Admission Free. 


Wellcome Collection

London, Greater London

A free museum and library exploring health and human experience. Located at 183 Euston Road, London, it explores the connections between medicine, life and art in the past, present and future. The venue offers visitors contemporary and historic exhibitions and collections, lively public events, the world-renowned Wellcome Library, a café,…

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