Teeth, Wellcome Collection, May 2018

IMG_1943For the last few weeks two of my children have been continually shoving their dirty little fingers into their mouths to wiggle their wobbly teeth at me. To be honest I am never very impressed and always a little queasy when faced with their bloody gums. They take great pleasure in it though to my dismay. You would think it would put me off visiting the new Wellcome exhibition on ‘Teeth’ and I can’t say I am actively looking forward to getting up close and personal with dentist chairs, drills and flamboyant tooth pullers.

Co-curator Emily Scott Dearing highlights some of the extraordinary loans in the exhibition

But I have to say 5 minutes in and coming face to face with two human skulls I was totally engrossed in our fascinating obsession with teeth. The 19th century skulls, on loan from the Museum of London, give a dramatic demonstration of the economics of health care that stretch back to the 1800s. One skull, we rather disturbingly know the owner, a Mrs Bampton Taylor displays an expensive dental bridge, a ‘human Waterloo’ tooth secured with platinum wire. Whilst the second skull shows rotten teeth covered in hardened dental plaque from a poorer contemporary of the image conscious Mrs B.

A ‘Waterloo tooth’ was in fact a human tooth, the rich with their rotten teeth pushed up demand for dentures in an age when concern over appearance and dental advances collided. The chance your new pearly whites had been pulled from the mouths of the dead also increased. The Battle of Waterloo in 1815 left 50,000 dead, and the exhibition takes great delight in telling us the battlefield was said to have been stripped of teeth in 24 hours.

I defy you not to start running your tooth round your own gnashers at this point, glad you don’t have some poor dead souls molars in your mouth. Not everyone was so enthusiastic about receiving a dead man’s teeth though and it is quite horrifying to read of the poor and orphans who were paid (and sometimes not paid) to give up their teeth.

I was fascinated and disgusted in equal measure to see John Hunters attempts to transplant teeth from one living mouth to another. There is a cockerel’s head with a human tooth sticking out of the top (I kid you not, you read that right), which Hunter used to see how the root of the tooth would take to living flesh.

18th century Partial upper walrus ivory denture with heart. British Dental Association Museum
Improvised denture for a British prisoner of war. 1940s Aluminium. British Dental Association Museum.

There are some really fascinating and ingenious methods of replacing teeth, there is a delightful walrus ivory denture with a heart, perfect for Valentine’s Day. Also the truly remarkable story of an RAF corporal interned in a Burmese POW camp during World War II who had aluminium dentures made for him out of metal stolen from a fallen Japanese fighter plane.

Phantom head. c.1890 University Museum Utrecht. Used by student dentists and set with real teeth.
Giant teeth used as a teaching aide.

The most memorable object has to go to the rather disturbing ‘Phantom head’, a large wooden head with real human teeth, used by trainee dentists at the University of Utrecht in the 1890s. It wouldn’t look out of place in a horror movie. There is fun to be had too (honest) seeing oversized teeth and dentist’s tools used to teach trainee dentists.

Maxam toothpaste advert by JWT China’s Chief Creative Officer Yang Yeo. 2012

I really loved the mix of history, science and art too with some stunning posters used in health care campaigns. The Maxam toothpaste advert “don’t let the germs settle down” is a brilliant incentive to not neglect your teeth lest they crumble into ruins.

Gibbs Oral Hygiene Service, c.1960. British Dental Association Museum.

There is gentle humour and welcome light relief, not only in some of the artwork but a lovely section exploring the role of the tooth fairy in our culture and some beautiful letters that had me chuckling away thinking of my own kids at home. Many a time we have tried to extricate a minuscule tooth from underneath a sleeping child and attempted to replace it with a coin late a night without waking the little bugger up. The last thing you need is to have to reply to a 3 page letter to the tooth fairy that requires you to explain: likes, dislikes, where you grew up and what you get up to when you are not collecting teeth. It is a lovely addition that brings a humanity that cuts through the history and clinical innovation of the displays. There is also a digital platform that allows you to add your own letters to the exhibition, a great idea to get families involved and just in time for half term visits too.

Mayan jade tooth inlay, 500-1,000 AD, British Dental Association Museum.

The exhibition continually sets you thinking about rich and poor, the haves and have nots and our never ending efforts for a perfect set of gnashers. But if you think teeth whitening and cosmetic dentistry is just something for today’s generation of celebrity wannabies there is an amazing Mayan tooth with jade inlay from 500-1,000 AD that is not to be missed.

I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibition, yes even more than a visit to the dentist. The lasting memory was the gentle humour of the exhibition, so perhaps a good place to finish this blog is with a few words from Spike Milligan and little note to the Tooth Fairy from my son –

IMG_1252Teeth –

English Teeth, English Teeth!
Shining in the sun
A part of British heritage
Aye, each and every one.
English Teeth, Happy Teeth?
Always having fun
Clamping down on bits of fish
And sausages half done.
English Teeth! HEROES’ Teeth!
Hear them click! and clack!
Let’s sing a song of praise to them-
Three Cheers for the Brown Grey and Black.

Spike Milligan


‘Teeth’ is a free exhibition at the Wellcome Collection and runs from 17th May – 16th September 2018

For more information please see the website –  https://wellcomecollection.org/exhibitions/WgV_ACUAAIu2P_ZM

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