Thank Goodness for 21st Century Dentistry!
Jane Austen is world famous for her wonderful novels, but she also wrote many letters to her sister, Cassandra. Most of these were burned by Cassandra after Jane’s death in accordance with her wishes, but two of them that remain have interesting insights into dentistry at the time.
In 1813 Jane had to take her three nieces to the dentist in Old Bond Street, and spent a “disagreeable hour” there. Lizzy’s teeth were filed and cleaned, whilst Marianne had two premolar teeth out to make room for the front ones – a treatment we still carry out today, although 21st century dentistry is mercifully done with anaesthetic. Poor Marianne was heard to utter “two sharp and hasty screams” from the next room as her teeth were extracted.
The dentist in question was dentist to George III, and had his very own patented brand of tooth powder for cleaning teeth. Jane was not keen to experience his care however; she said she would not have had him look at her teeth “for a shilling a tooth and double it”.
Of course, at around the same time as Jane Austen was writing her novels, terrible carnage was being played out on the Battlefields of Europe. Waterloo resulted in 48000 deaths, and soon after the battle the field was being picked over by an army of opportunists hoping to strip the corpses of their possessions – and their teeth. These teeth were valuable, being sold on in London to be used in dentures. So many were the teeth from Waterloo that dentures gained a new nickname – Waterloo Teeth. At the time only the very rich could afford them as they sold for several thousand pounds a set in today’s money.
Demand continued to be good as the years went on, encouraging bodysnatchers and indeed murder; the new porcelain teeth introduced in 1808 were even more expensive so did little to discourage the trade. It took till the second half of the nineteenth century for the market in human teeth to begin to dwindle.
Reading over these chilling accounts, I am grateful that both the comfort and the cost of dentistry have improved in our own times!
With thanks to Steve Ainsworth, who published articles in The Dentist magazine in October 2013 and June 2015 on which I have drawn for this blog.