Just open wide please, this won't hurt a bit

2nd February 1996 at 00:00
Cemetery breath, aluminium gloves and gas masks - Laurence Alster visits the dentist

Nowadays, dental students are taught that there is one word they must never use in the presence of a patient. That word is pain. ("This might hurt a little" is the prescribed line.) A walk round the British Dental Association Museum shows that, not so long ago, such a decree would have had about as much success as asking apprentice butchers not to talk about meat in front of the customers.

Not unexpectedly, the museum takes great pains to make it clear just how lucky we are to live in an age when having a tooth pulled is about as deadly as popping out for a takeaway. In a long, two-floor room crammed with display cabinets, wall posters, engravings and mock-up surgeries, there is enough evidence of past oral agony to convince even the most confirmed dentist-hater that, at least in teeth terms, life today is sweet indeed.

That much is evident from various of the instruments on display, some of which look more suited to panel-beating than to poking around people's ulcers. For instance, used from medieval times, "pelicans" served to extract teeth by hooking a claw of the tooth then levering it out. If the roots of the tooth had been left in place, an "elevator" would be used to prise them from the gum cavity. All, of course, done without anaesthetic.

Such instruments give new meaning to a number of cruelly comic engravings that show "patients" ("victims", more like) having teeth yanked by all manner of bogus and genuine practitioners. Not that, according to some excellent wall displays, there were so many people with teeth to pull. At the time of the Boer War, it appears, most working-class people had lost all their teeth by age 30.

Sugar was the culprit. At least the rich, unlike the poor, had the option of dentures. Some option. In the early 19th century, these were carved pieces of ivory studded with teeth pulled from bodies stolen from graveyards. Kept in place with springs, they would occasionally pop suddenly from the mouth. The ivory base was given to rotting, with cemetery breath the outcome. No wonder the fan became fashionable with the upper classes. Those television adaptations of classic novels, with pretty young things delicately wafting air in all directions, will never be the same again.

Visitors to the museum will pick up numerous such nuggets, all the time either wincing at the instruments on show, imagining themselves at the mercy of a dentist in one of the mock-up surgeries, or wondering at some of the appliances - such as the Hand-I-Hold Aluminium Babe Mitts, a 1906 gadget to discourage thumb-sucking - while inwardly blessing the advent of anaesthesia. Only the strangest place could make an old and worn gas mask look almost inviting, but this museum manages to do so with hardly any effort at all.

The British Dental Association Museum, 64 Wimpole Street, London W1M 8AL. Tel: 0171 935 0875

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