The Natural History of the Human Teeth by John Hunter F.R.S., 1771

Royal Institution Rare Book Collection

This book aimed to explain the structure, use, formation, growth and disease of teeth. It was compiled by John Hunter (1728-1793) a Scottish surgeon who learnt anatomy by assisting his elder brother William with dissections at the anatomy school in London. He became an army surgeon and worked with dentist James Spence in conducting tooth transplants. In 1764 he set up his own anatomy school in London where he also built up a collection of animal skeletons and bottled organs to show in teaching demonstrations. This collection now resides in the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London, named in his honour.

The illustration show representations of the Upper-Jaw, Lower-Jaw, Teeth Sockets and different types of teeth.


Nicolas DuBois de Chémant (1753-1824) was instrumental in the development of artificial teeth.  For centuries, missing teeth were replaced either by teeth taken from humans or animals, or false teeth were carved out of an organic substance such as ivory.  This finally began to change in the 18th century, when French practitioners began to consider fashioning artificial teeth out of enamel in earnest.  In 1774 the apothecary Alexis Duchâteau, who was disgusted by the odor of his own ivory dentures, managed to create teeth made from porcelain; however, his inexperience with actual dentistry prevented him from fully realizing his goal of creating porcelain dentures for a wide market.  His efforts were still acknowledged by the Parisian Royal Academy of Surgeons in 1776.

 De Chémant, who was one of the dentists initially consulted by Duchâteau, continued to persist in crafting functional mineral teeth.  Working at the Sèvres porcelain factory, he experimented with the formula until he had created dentures that were both an acceptable color and did not shrink excessively during firing.  He submitted the results to the Academy of Surgery in Paris in 1789, who declared mineral teeth to be unhealthy.  Fortunately for de Chémant, the Royal Academy of Sciences was much more receptive to his work and provided a favorable report; King Louis XVI also granted him a patent that granted him the sole right to create mineral teeth for the next fifteen years.

 His treatise on artificial teeth, Dissertation sur les avantages des nouvelles dents, was published in Paris in 1788.  The McKellops collection at the Becker Library holds the English translation published in 1797.


Sugar Affluenza 

In early modern Europe, refined sugar became a status symbol. The sweet tooth of the 1%, combined with their zeal for over-the-top banqueting, lead to a dreaded new disease, thought to be God’s punishment for gluttony: dental decay.

Pictured: A terrifying 17th-century dentist and designs for table sculptures made entirely of sugar.

Royal Cavities: The Bitter Implications of Sugar Consumption in Early Modern Europe


Waterloo Teeth,

In the 18th and 19th century dentures were made from a variety of materials; ivory, bone, animal teeth, ceramics, and others.  However the best dentures were those constructed from genuine second hand human teeth.  Such dentures were rare and expensive, as there was a very limited supply of teeth available to construct them.  A lucky dentist might be able to acquire the teeth of an executed criminal, that is if the criminal had a nice set of pearly whites. Body snatchers were also a common source.  While body snatching was often done to provide cadavers for medical schools, corpses could also be unearthed by snatchers for their teeth.  War was particularly profitable time for dentists, who would often hang around battlefields so that they could yank the teeth of fallen soldiers after the fighting had ended.  Such a practice was especially common during the Napoleonic Wars, as the large battles of the war such as Austerlitz, Jena, and Leipzig resulted in fields strewn with tens of thousands of corpses.  The Battle of Waterloo was most notorious for teeth scavengers. Located in Belgium, the battlefield was not far from France, England, The Netherlands, and Germany.  Thus there was an opportunity for dentists and denture makers from many nations to converge upon the battlefield in order to scavenge for teeth.  In addition, being the last major battle of the Napoleonic Wars, it was the last chance for dentists to score an easy source of second hand teeth.  The pickings were very rich as the carnage of Waterloo would result in the deaths of over 50,000 men.  As a result, dentures constructed from soldiers teeth, regardless of which battlefield they originated from were often called “Waterloo Teeth”.  The practice of scavenging battlefields for teeth would continue to a lesser extent during the Crimean War and American Civil War.

“May 18, 2009—The glittering "grills” of some hip-hop stars aren’t exactly unprecedented. Sophisticated dentistry allowed Native Americans to add bling to their teeth as far back as 2,500 years ago, a new study says.

Ancient peoples of southern North America went to “dentists"—among the earliest known—to beautify their chompers with notches, grooves, and semiprecious gems, according to a recent analysis of thousands of teeth examined from collections in Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (such as the skull above, found in Chiapas, Mexico).

Scientists don’t know the origin of most of the teeth in the collections, which belonged to people living throughout the region, called Mesoamerica, before the Spanish conquests of the 1500s.

But it’s clear that people—mostly men—from nearly all walks of life opted for the look, noted José Concepción Jiménez, an anthropologist at the institute, which recently announced the findings.

"They were not marks of social class” but instead meant for pure decoration, he commented in an e-mail interview conducted in Spanish.

In fact, the royals of the day—such as the Red Queen, a Maya mummy found in a temple at Palenque in what is now Mexico—don’t have teeth decorations, Jiménez said.

Other evidence of early Mesoamerican dentistry—including a person who had received a ceremonial denture—has also been found.“


strangeremains check this out

An 18th-century hand-illustrated page from an Ottoman Turk dental book showing a molar infected with tooth worms. 

“As early as Babylonian times and lasting well into the eighteenth century, it was thought that a toothache was caused by worms. (The theory was disproved by Jacob Christian Schaffer in 1757.) These worms were depicted in art as dwelling with the demons of Hell and feeding upon the sinners. 

In a cavity on one side of the bisected tooth, Lucifer watches as two worms devour and entrap their victims. In the other half of the tooth, demons lord over a collection of human skulls.”

Source: Daily Anatomy

A beautiful example of a mid 18th century dental tooth key,

Used during the 18th and 19th century, the tooth key was a device for extraction teeth.  The key was clamped onto the the tooth, the user then rotated it left, then right, and then pulled out the offending tooth.  This is a particularly luxurious model with a decorative cast bronze and ivory handle.