Horrifying knife collection traces dentistry back to (painful) roots

Now that’s an oral history: Horrifying collection of crude knives, drills and forceps as well as some VERY rotten teeth trace dentistry back to its (painful) roots

  • ‘Gruesome’ objects on display include a 19th century skull with rotten teeth covered in severe plaque
  • A barber-surgeon chair used for limb amputation, teeth pulling and hair trimming in the 1800s is also on view
  • A  pedal-operated 19th century drill and dentures made from hippopotamus ivory also feature at the show
  • The exhibition Teeth runs from May 17 to September 16 at the Wellcome Collection, London 

A European sculpture of a barber-surgeon reminds viewers what a trip to the dentist was like in the 17th century

Dental phobia sufferers might want to stay away – a new exhibition features rotten teeth and a selection of ‘crude’ tools once used for their extraction.

The Wellcome Collection’s new exhibition is billed as the first to trace the evolution of ‘our relationship with our teeth’.

‘Gruesome’ objects on display include a 19th century skull, complete with rotten teeth covered in severe plaque.

Visitors will also see a 19th century barber-surgeon chair, for patients to sit in while enduring – with a razor and other crude tools – limb amputation and teeth pulling as well as hair trimming.


For anyone who could not afford the barber-surgeon, the blacksmith provided an alternative.

Barber-surgeons’ tools included a tooth key, a form of early forceps featuring a claw and a bolster placed against the gum.

A toothbrush, complete with silver-gilt handle, belonging to Napoleon, whose teeth were described as ‘bad and dirty’ , is also on show.

A photograph of Elizabeth I, whose teeth were said to be ‘black, a defect that the English seem subject to, from their great use of sugar’, is also on display.

Despite being plagued by toothache, she was reluctant to have treatment, until the Bishop of London volunteered to have an extraction in front of her to show how the pain was not as bad as she thought.

Also on show is the hygiene set used by Queen Victoria’s dentist and dental powders containing brick dust, charcoal, soap and salt.

A wooden ‘phantom head’, set with real human teeth and used for training dentists, is also on show.

The exhibition also features a pedal-operated 19th century drill, a spittoon, dentures made from hippopotamus ivory, tooth-whitening kits, and early toothbrushes made from hog hair and badger hair.

This model was adapted from a pharmacy sign dating from 1895 and is one of the many exhibits at the ‘Teeth’ exhibition 

The exhibition, which runs from May 17 to September 16 in London, features many exhibits, including this framed dentist’s window display from Ghent, Belgium used in the late 19th century by Dentist JJ Rosseeuw

This teaching model of two molars, with removable tops were used to demonstrate preparation for an amalgam filling. The model dates from about 1890-1910

These molars were used as a teaching model around the years 1890-1910 (left) and a wooden head with rotten human teeth indicates the limits of dentistry knowledge in previous years (right)

This elegant oral hygiene set, dating from 1800-25, is one of the more opulent exhibits on display in London

A selection of letters children have written to the tooth fairy are also among the 150 objects on display, in an exhibition which looks at tooth care for the rich and poor.

A section on ‘dental bling’ includes an ancient Mayan tooth embellished with jade and a contemporary grillz, with the item of tooth jewellery containing diamonds.

The show’s curators James Peto and Emily Scott-Dearing said that anyone suffering from dental phobia should visit.

A model with a cleft palate and prosthesis dating from 1910-40 can be seen at the ‘Teeth’ exhibition  which traces developments in dentistry over centuries

An enthusiastic viewer smiles as she gets up close and personal with a large upper jaw teaching model from 1974

Napoleon Bonaparte, the iconic French leader, once used this silver handle and horsehair bristled toothbrush

More than 150 objects feature in the exhibition, including this gaper phantom, adapted from a pharmacy sign in 1895

A portable regulating ether inhaler with ether bottle and measuring flask was an anaesthetic solution in the late 1800s

These scalers and chisels were used around the year 1920 and they bear a slight resemblance to modern dentistry tools

A Boxed Addis toothbrush, Prophylactic toothbrush, Darson, the smoker’s toothbrush, and The Modern toothbrush date from 1920-47

A viewer looks back in time and through JJ Rosseeuw’s framed dentist’s window display from the late 19th century in Belgium

The Henry Schein Dental treatment station with intraoral scanning data shows the modern face of dentisrty

 Scott-Dearing said: ‘I would advise them to come and see just how far we have come.’

Peto added: ‘There is some scary stuff at the beginning but I hope that it lightens up at the end and I hope they’d go away feeling more inclined to visit the dentist than they did before.’

Teeth runs from May 17 to September 16 at the Wellcome Collection, a free museum and library exploring health, life and our place in the world in Euston, central London. 


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