Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Dentures, Death and Fashion: Waterloo Teeth: Guest Post by Kristin Hussey, Hunterian Museum, London

Kristin Hussey--Assistant Curator of the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons with responsibility for the Odontological Collection--has kindly agreed to write a series of guest posts for Morbid Anatomy about some of the most curious objects in her collection.

The seventh post from that series--entitled "Dentures, Death and Fashion: Waterloo Teeth"-- commemorates The Battle of Waterloo, which took place 199 years ago today--June 18th, 1815.

The full post follows; you can view all posts in this series by clicking here.
Teeth have always been a commodity. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the price for healthy human teeth was at a premium. They were hotly sought after by dentists who used them to replace the lost ones of their wealthy clients. With sugar consumption skyrocketing, the Georgian upper classes began to lose their teeth at an enormous rate and custom dentures were a matter of function and fashion.

These replacement teeth were most commonly made from animal ivory which deteriorated rapidly in the mouth with no enamel to protect them. Human teeth were a more attractive but perhaps unsavory option. In the 18th century, these ‘natural’ teeth were usually acquired from executed criminals, bodies from the Resurrection men, or pulled from dentist’s patients. This was all changed during the Peninsular Wars in the early 19th century where young, healthy men were being killed- an ideal ground for the tooth hunters. The famous surgeon Sir Astley Cooper (1768-1841) is known to have sent a man behind the battles in 1814 to prise the teeth from soldiers’ mouths. His servant famously wrote to him, ‘Only let there be such a battle and there will be no want of teeth; I’ll draw them as fast as the men are knocked down.’

Cooper got his wish on the 18th of June 1815 when the French army was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo. Over 51,000 men lost their lives on the field, but their loss was the dentists’ gain. An enormous surplus of human teeth flooded the market. These battlefield teeth quickly picked up the moniker ‘Waterloo teeth’ and even had a certain appeal. Genuine ‘Waterloo teeth’ was a draw for the discerning lady or gentleman looking for a high quality denture.
The Odontological Collection holds a number of dentures with natural teeth from the 19th century, but the only ones we can be certain came from the fields at Waterloo are a collection donated in 1950 by the surgeon and archaeologist Eliot Cecil Curwen (RCSOM/M 30.2). While this may seem quite late, it wasn’t until the early twentieth century that the technology for false teeth was able to steal the business away from the ‘genuine’ article.
  1. "Scotland Forever!" Lady Elizabeth Butler, 1881, depicting the charge of the Royal North British Dragoons (The Scots Greys) at the Battle of Waterloo. Found here.
  2. RCSOM/M 30.2: Teeth removed from bodies after Battle of Waterloo, 1815. These teeth were drawn from the bodies of soldiers who died at the battlefield of Waterloo on 18 June 1815.

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