No one really enjoys going to the dentist. Even if you don’t have an actual phobia, there’s something about the sound of the drills, the look of those sharp pokey instruments and the seeping medicinal smells that put most people on edge, their teeth included. But for anyone who’s been putting off going for a check-up, the Wellcome Collection’s new exhibition dedicated to pearly whites will make you grateful for the wonders of modern dentistry by showing you just how gruesome it used to be.
The exhibition begins by exploring the origins of dentistry and the work of French physician Pierre Fauchard, who published ‘Le Chirurgien-Dentiste’ (‘The Surgeon Dentist’) in 1728, the first scientific treatise on teeth and the emerging new profession of dentistry. Before this, people with toothache relied on herbal remedies, prayers and the dreaded tooth-puller, who was often also a professional barber/surgeon or blacksmith, ie not very delicate. This section has plenty of gnarly prints and paintings of torturous-looking tooth extraction that’ll make your insides feel funny.
But that’s not the only gruesome thing on display: there are cabinets of tooth-pulling ‘keys’, drills, sharp instruments, dentures and the dreaded dentist’s chair. But with each of these, the show charts their development, showing you how things have vastly improved over the years: you’ll see an unforgiving nineteenth-century oak chair with a severe wooden head cradle up to a contemporary ergonomically-designed, padded and reclining seat that looks positively comfortable.
Once we see anesthetic being introduced in the mid-1800s, the whole exhibition becomes a lot more palatable. There’s an impressive selection of fake teeth, dentures, pastes and brushes (including Napoleon’s silver-handled toothbrush), plus some comically large teeth used by trainee dentists and poster campaigns to get post-WWII Britain to brush up on their oral hygiene. There’s also a cute display of letters to (and from) the tooth fairy.
The show ends by looking at teeth in today’s society, from how they’re pimped out with blinging grillz and the quest for the bright white Hollywood smile to using teeth for forensic clues and even curing dental anxiety. Maybe it’s time to book that check-up after all.