In 1815, dentistry as we know it today was in its infancy – and the mouths of the rich were rotten. So they took teeth for their dentures from the bodies of tens of thousands of dead soldiers on the battlefield at Waterloo.
In the late 18th and early 19th Centuries “everyone was dabbling in dentistry”, says Rachel Bairsto, curator of British Dental Association’s museum in central London. From ivory turners to jewellers, chemists, wigmakers and even blacksmiths.
Among the wealthy, sugar consumption was on the rise and early attempts at teeth-whitening – with acidic solutions – wore away enamel.
Teeth were being pulled. The demand for false teeth was growing. Business was booming.
There is evidence from the years before the Battle of Waterloo, says Bairsto, that early dentists did place human teeth in dentures.
This advertisement above, from 1792, calls for foreign teeth – which would have been riveted into ivory dentures and placed into unhealthy British mouths.
And cartoons from the period – like the one below from Thomas Rowlandson in 1787 – show teeth of the poorest in society being yanked out. They were live donors for the benefit of more wealthy dental patients.
In the 1780s, says Bairsto, an ivory denture with human teeth could cost over £100. Without human teeth it was cheaper, but still financially out of reach for most people.
Despite the huge cost – because the dentures were likely to have been put into unhealthy mouths – they probably would not have lasted very long….And so human teeth, set in a denture, were more desirable. But the number of live donors was finite, and grave robbers could offer only limited supplies.
The prospect of thousands of British, French and Prussian teeth – sitting in the mouths of recently-killed soldiers on the battlefield at Waterloo – was an attractive one for looters.
There were lots of bodies in one place and above ground – says Rachel Bairsto. The teeth would have been pulled out with pliers by surviving troops and locals – but also by scavengers who had travelled from Britain.
This next picture shows teeth taken from Waterloo strung up for sale…The next big breakthrough was the use of vulcanite as a base for dentures – replacing ivory. Developed in the 1840s by American brothers Charles and Nelson Goodyear, it’s a compound made from India rubber. It was relatively cheap – but also pink, very nearly gum-coloured….From pulling incisors from bodies on the Belgian battlefield, to porcelain teeth set in vulcanite dentures – there were significant advances in dental care in the 19th Century. But it would be well into the 20th Century – with acrylic replacing vulcanite, and fluoride put into toothpaste – before the next big improvements would arrive….read more
I guess at the time, dental implants were not a possibility to replace all those lost teeth.