Internet Explorer and Edge browser users:
To download Word, Excel or PowerPoint files please right-click on the file you wish to download, and select 'Save target as...'

BDA Museum: Telling the story of dentistry

Blog Author Rachel Bairsto

Blog Date 31/03/2021

Rachel Bairsto, BDA Museum Head, on the colourful history of dentistry and how it has evolved

Our museum is still closed to the public due to the pandemic. However, I recently got a chance to speak alongside Dr Scott Swank of the National Museum of Dentistry in Baltimore in the US, and Professor Dominik Gross of RWTH Aachen University in Germany on the BBC's World Service programme 'The Forum', about the history of dentistry. Here are some of the highlights:


Invention of early dental techniques

Mayan tooth with precious stone inlay

    Mayan tooth with precious stone inlay


The oldest piece we have in our collection at the BDA Museum is a Mayan tooth, from around the 9th century AD, which demonstrates the advanced cosmetic dental skills of this ancient civilization. Most likely, a bow drill was used to prepare holes for semi-precious stones in front teeth. The stone was then shaped to fit the hole and cemented into place. 


Drilling as accurately and effectively as this challenged dentists for centuries in the Western world. It wasn't until the 1870s, when foot operated drills were developed, that dentists mastered this technique. So, it is quite incredible to learn that in Mayan times some smiled with teeth containing different gemstones!


A 'cookbook' for dentistry

It is fascinating to consider the trajectory of the innovative and relatively pain-free technologies dentistry has developed in modern times to ensure a much more comfortable experience for patients.


Any discussion of 'classic' dentistry is not complete without reference to  Pierre Fauchard's seminal work, Le Chirurgien Dentiste or The Surgeon Dentist, published in 1728. During our conversation, Dr Swank described it as 'a cookbook for dentistry', and it certainly transformed the way dentistry was practised and taught.


Fauchard recorded everything he knew about dentistry at that time, and wasn't afraid to share his ideas and observations, which many practitioners before him had failed to do.

The book contains 42 detailed illustrations of the instruments and appliances he used. He details the practice of making artificial teeth and using fillings to restore teeth as well as highlighting the importance of oral health.


Creative ways of making false teeth

Human teeth strung along wires that are pinned to a dsiplay board

Dentures became a big business in the Regency period, as the wealthy suddenly became more interested in their appearance, following the fashions of the French court. French dentists came over to the UK, bringing their dentures and knowledge with them. Fauchard talks about making dentures from hippo and walrus ivory.


These were beautifully made, carved in single piece, in horseshoe shape, as there was no accurate way of measuring the mouth at the time. Unfortunately, they were also very heavy and would rot and smell.  Keeping them in your mouth would have been tricky for the Georgians wealthy enough to have them. They would have frequently fallen out when talking or eating - quite a far cry from the glamorous picture painted in the recent Netflix series Bridgerton, as I've pointed out on past occasions!


The search for a more authentic smile led to fitting human teeth into an ivory base. These teeth were often taken from mortuaries or stolen by grave robbers, which meant they were probably already quite diseased or decayed. The young dead soldiers from the battlefields of Europe presented a far more reliable source.

After the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, the teeth became known as 'Waterloo teeth', a macabre but practical way of meeting the demand. We have a set in our Museum. They are front teeth, carved and ready for sale to a dentist, strung on a piece of string to show them off to their full effect.


A game changer: anaesthetics and x-rays

Low resolution image of upper and lower front teethThe mid-19th century saw the rapid development of anaesthetics in dentistry. First, nitrous oxide (also known as laughing gas) was discovered by Horace Wells in 1844, ether was then developed by William Morton in 1845, and finally chloroform in 1846. As Dr Swank noted, local anaesthesia was not discovered until 1884, when cocaine started to be used. The adverse side effects of cocaine meant that it was replaced first by lidocaine, and then by articane, which is still in use today.


Another significant development came from a somewhat surprising place.  As the profession was looking at new approaches to drilling machines, a humble sewing machine served as the inspiration and blueprint for James Morrison's 1871 power drill. But until the late 1890s, there was no way to look at the roots of teeth and find out what was causing dental problems. Around this time, x-rays and radiographs began to be used for dental surgery; a development Dr Swank rightly referred to as a game-changer.


The humble toothbrush

Wooden toothbrush, stamped with "Made in England" and "Leicester education committee" on the handle

  Bone handled toothbrush with pig bristles issued by Leicester Education Committee c 1920


There were great advances made in public health in the 20th century and I believe the greatest may be, the invention of the modern toothbrush. Early versions began with the use of miswak's - a fibrous twig people chewed the end of to make a type of brush. This was used for centuries in Asia and the Middle East, and continues to be used to this day.


In European society, early references were made to wiping teeth with sponge or cloth, but it wasn't until the 1780s when William Addis made the first toothbrush with a handle and bristles, that it became recognisable as the tool we use today. At the time, they were expensive, and it is doubtful that people were cleaning their teeth very regularly. It was a slow journey to twice daily brushing.


It's easy to overlook because we use it every day. Despite its structural and technological simplicity, this unsung hero has done a great job over the last 200 years of preserving and even saving our teeth.


It was fantastic to have an opportunity to discuss some of these amazing objects from our collection, and to hear the stories of dentistry from America and Europe. I hope when we can open our doors again in the future, you will come and see some of this history for yourself.


Rachel Bairsto


Rachel Bairsto
BDA Museum, Head of Museum Services