Rich Georgians happily accepted teeth extracted from the poor – or even the dead
This 1787 etching by Thomas Rowlandson, entitled Transplanting of Teeth, demonstrates the huge disparities in access to dental care between rich and poor in the 18th century. The chimney sweep at the centre of the image is having a tooth removed, while the well-dressed woman next to him waits for the extracted tooth to be implanted into her mouth.
“Teeth transplantation had its moment at the end of the 18th century,” comments Scott-Dearing. “Surgeon John Hunter was the first to experiment with transplanting teeth, and in the 1770s he claimed to have successfully transplanted a human tooth into the comb of a cockerel [the bird’s head is on show in the exhibition]. Human to human tooth transplants soon followed – most staying in place for a year or two – and dentists lured the poor to their surgeries offering money for live teeth.
“Even corpses weren’t immune to the booming trade in teeth. After the battle of Waterloo, it’s said that within 24 hours thousands of dead soldiers were stripped of their teeth, to be set into dentures.”