London: Teeth @ the Wellcome Collection

I was both excited and apprehensive about seeing the Wellcome Collection’s latest exhibition: “Teeth.” Excited, because the publicity material they released before the exhibition made it look great; apprehensive, because despite my general love for all things gory and medical, historic dentistry creeps me out (even though I’m not really afraid of dentists. Orthodontists, yes (my orthodontist’s awfulness had to be experienced to be believed), but not really dentists. But if you are afraid of dentists, this may not be the post for you). But in the end excitement won out, and I strolled on over to the Wellcome after I visited Cook at the BL.


“Teeth” is in the same first floor gallery that “Ayurvedic Man” was in (“Somewhere in Between” is still in the main gallery), and was a big, open, inviting space, with display cases mainly along the walls to make room for historic dental equipment in the middle of the room. I seem to have a knack for finding George Washington’s dentures in various museums (really, more pairs of dentures than you would think the man would have owned), so of course I was immediately on the lookout for some here, and I wasn’t disappointed. Poor old George and his omnipresent dentures. The exhibition theorised that George may have always looked rather stern in portraits because he was straining to keep his mouth closed – upper and lower dentures used to be held together with springs, which would have required some powerful jaw muscles to close!
He wasn’t the only famous person whose dental apparatuses were here either. There was also Napoleon’s toothbrush, which is interesting, because there are widely conflicting reports of Napoleon’s dental hygiene out there. His biographer claimed he was fastidious about brushing his teeth and had a beautiful white smile, whereas his contemporaries said his teeth were black and rotting. The pristine state of his toothbrush leads me to believe that his contemporaries probably were correct. Even more intriguing than Napoleon’s toothbrush was the upper plate belonging to Edmund Burke, politician and philosopher. It seemed to indicate that he had a cleft palate, as there was an extra piece on top to fill in a gap in the mouth. Burke famously wrote an essay on beauty in which he claimed that imperfection could add to the beauty of something – perhaps this was something he had firsthand experience of?
Because the subject matter was teeth, which is something many people have anxieties about (the exhibition also discussed why this was, and a lot of it did probably have to do with the horrors of pre-20th century dentistry, but some of it is also just the nature of teeth. After all, they are the only part of the skeleton that is exposed during your lifetime (barring any horrific accidents)), obviously some of the objects here were going to be a bit, well, creepy. The creepiest by far were the phantom heads that dentistry students used for practice. I think they would have been less scary if they were actually just a skull, because something about the wooden block with real teeth in it is the stuff of nightmares (as is the even scarier face with metal jaws filled with real teeth, which you’ll see at the bottom of this post, if you’re brave enough!). The display about dentures was less overtly disturbing, but it explained how when cheaper, better looking dentures made of porcelain became available, they were so popular that some people used to get all their teeth pulled in their twenties to avoid the hassle and expense of dental care in their adult lives, which really gives me the willies (Roald Dahl was one of those, and though I dearly love his books, his dentures are always one of the first things to cross my mind when I think of him (much like with George Washington)).
Fortunately, my pal Binaca squirrel was there to lighten the mood (I’ve never used Binaca, but it makes me think of that episode of Seinfeld where Elaine sprays Joe Davola in the eyes with cherry Binaca to escape his apartment), as were the letters both to and from the tooth fairy. I must have had quite a good tooth fairy, because there was usually some kind of small gift to accompany the two shiny new 50 cent pieces (I seem to remember it usually being a Disney VHS when I was a kid, but I didn’t lose my last baby tooth until I was 13 and though the tooth fairy still came, it felt more half-assed, not that I blame her) and a note carefully written on heart-shaped construction paper that was folded up small enough to fit inside the little plastic treasure chest that held my tooth. Some of the other tooth fairies were slightly more droll than mine, and their letters had me cracking up (even though the thought of a tooth fairy accidentally removing all the teeth from children who slept with their heads under the pillow would have given me nightmares when I was a kid, so probably for the best my tooth fairy was of a kinder, gentler variety).
Other objects of note included an aluminum pair of dentures made by a WWII POW who’d had his good dentures smashed by a Japanese guard (I was relieved that he’d already had dentures, because I know they often just smashed out your actual teeth), a horrible wooden chair for strapping reluctant patients to (which, before anesthesia, was pretty much everyone (shown second photo in the post)), and a number of hilarious historic ads for dentists, toothpaste, etc.
And I have to say, I don’t know if the main intention of this exhibition was to promote modern dentistry, but it definitely made me want to make a preventative visit to the dentist (especially the poster describing in great detail exactly how decay takes your teeth if you don’t visit the dentist often enough), so much so that I booked an overdue appointment (only by six months or so, but still) a few days after seeing this. Some of the objects on display were pretty freaky, and if you’re already scared of dentists, this exhibition might not help (though surely at least seeing how much worse it used to be would give you some perspective), but I thought it was fascinating, even though I ended up compulsively running my tongue over my teeth the whole time I was in there (and I don’t think I was the only one doing it either). 4/5.


      1. Never been to the London Hunterian though the Glasgow one is rather good. I might have to plan a trip south soon!

  1. I would hate to be a dentist – guddling about in other people’s mouths sounds awful to me – but I’ve never minded going to the dentist. In fact, I remember a screaming child being brought in to observe me not making a fuss in the dentist’s chair when I was very young. Maybe I was blasé because I had a lot of dental work having inherited a narrow jaw from one parent and big teeth from another. They’re very straight though. Now. Anyway, I think I would really enjoy this exhibition and be far less revolted by it than some of the other things you write about!

    1. Yeah, I would hate it too – a lot of people must have bad breath, and I have no desire to stick my hands in a stranger’s mouth. I had braces when I was a teenager, but I didn’t even have to get a cavity filled til I was in my 20s, which is probably why the dentist didn’t scare me (I did have to get a couple of baby teeth pulled because they were messing up my permanent teeth, but they gave me laughing gas and I remember it actually being kind of fun rather than scary). It is a good exhibition, though I still personally prefer medical history to dental history!

  2. Wow, your post is so timely because I intend to see this next Friday! I plan to arrive a day early for a Victorian architecture study trip in hope of not being overly jet lagged for the course. So, I immediately put the Wellcome first on my list! I can’t wait! I’m also looking forward to browsing the gift shop. Anyway, those phantom heads really do look terrifying…maybe this will help keep me from falling asleep too early haha.

  3. I have to admit, I was a bit nervous embarking on this post because I knew something would be lurking that’d give me a deep, icky feeling. And there it was – that rounded, sightless, wooden head. Seriously, what the hell … it’s like they were trying mentally scar people.
    Happily though, there are so many really delightful things here – like the Riddle Stower ad. I love the hilarious technique of just blacking out some of her teeth. And it’s such a nice touch that the exhibit included letters from the tooth fairy. Your own tooth fairy sounds absolutely ideal. I don’t recall ever getting anything other than a little envelope with a dollar in it. Though, last year, I cracked and lost a small piece of a tooth and when I went to bed that night, I found $5 under my pillow – and my boyfriend was all “Aw, you just missed her – she came by to see you.” I thought that was pretty good. His stock definitely went up in my books.
    Ha! Your mention of Binaca made me laugh – I’ve never used it either and so I always think of that Seinfeld episode too. But now I’ll also be thinking about that adorable, fluffy-eared squirrel. I’d love a copy of that poster.
    C’mon, that head at the end? Sweet Jesus…

    1. Aww, your boyfriend definitely sounds like a keeper! I think my mother asked me if I wanted the tooth fairy to visit after I had my wisdom teeth out (I was like 19 or 20 at the time), but I totally wanted to keep those teeth, so I declined. I still wonder what happened to all the baby teeth though…I suspect they’re in a creepy box somewhere or something.
      I can see why they used the Binaca squirrel to advertise the exhibition rather than the tooth heads. I didn’t see any prints or anything in the shop though, sadly. Not that I’d want one of those heads.

  4. Nice blog article, thanks! As a retired dentist, I was a little disappointed with this exhibition, which has received much critical acclaim. Maybe, because it was so highly praised I arrived with raised expectations.

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