‘The Alienation of Teeth’ – A Guest Post by Paul Craddock

Two years ago, I produced this film to complement the first chapter of my then infant Ph.D. on pre-20th century transplant surgery.  I and Jonathan Law, a fellow London Consortium student, visited the British Dental Association Museum and the Hunterian Museum.

For this blog post I consider the salience of teeth and the ways in which transplanting teeth modified their position in the body.

As a child, I remember sitting on the floor in front of the television at my Grandparents’ house, captivated by Disney’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.  I remember most vividly the scene where the Cheshire Cat gradually disappears.  I recall a purple, striped, fat cat perched on the bough of a tree, grinning inanely; the pupils of his eyes bobbing around, his straight teeth a glistening white – ‘grinning from ear to ear’ (Carroll 1866, 82). The smile distinguished the Cat and announced his presence:

‘[…] I wish you wouldn’t keep appearing and vanishing so suddenly: you make one quite giddy.’

‘All right,’ said the Cat; and this time it vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone.

‘Well! I’ve often seen a cat without a grin,’ thought Alice; ‘but a grin without a cat! It’s the most curious thing I ever saw in all my life!’ (ibid, 93-94).

Carroll’s cat’s smile is detachable from the rest of its body.  This is perhaps not as far-fetched as his fantasy might suggest.  It has always been the case that those constituent ingredients of the grin or smile – the teeth – fall out once early in life and again with the onset of old age, disease, or accident.  One might recall false teeth with heads absent, chasing cartoon cats and dogs around in 1950s cartoons, or the permanently grinning false teeth in a jar of fluid perched on the side of an elderly relative’s night-table. The teeth and perhaps the smile introduce one’s face – and this is literally the case for beings such as the Cheshire Cat.  But the teeth’s peculiar nature as commonly detachable from the living body, naturally and unnaturally, has afforded a distinct experience of them as constantly present furniture of the mouth.

In this peculiar way, the teeth are easy to disassociate from the body.  One of theology’s great worriers, Thomas Aquinas, was concerned with which parts of the body one is resurrected with.  Body parts such as nails, hair, and teeth are of questionable status.  Are they part of the body? Or are they excreta? (If you are interested in this quandary and its context, Aquinas’s Summa Contra Gentiles can be found online. Question 80 is the section I refer to here).  So, it might be said that teeth start out at the margins of the body; a piece of furniture in the head.

Nevertheless, they are a part that is naturally lost on two occasions if one is unlucky.  And the rise of the tooth transplant made them much easier to lose (for the poorer, younger, and healthier sort) and much easier to gain (for the richer, older, and wealthier sort).

The first written mention of a tooth transplant is from 1562 by Ambroise Paré:

I heard it reported by a credible person, that hee saw a Ladie of the prime Nobilitie, who instead of a rotten tooth shee drew, made a found tooth; drawn from one of her waiting-maids at the same time, to be substituted and inserted, which tooth in process of time, as it were taking root, grew so firm, as that shee could chaw upon it as well as upon anie of the rest. But as I formerly said, I have this but by hear-say. (Paré 1634, 415)

Though this was only ‘by hear-say’, the possibility of such a transaction was recognised.  Over a century later, a Yorkshire dentist, Charles Allen, even recommended transplanting animal’s teeth.  Transplanting teeth between two humans was ‘too Inhumane, and attended with too many Difficulties’ (Allen 1685, 11).  Despite having a long history, the operation seems not to have become particularly popular until the mid eighteenth century.  By the early decades of the 19th century, the operation had all but disappeared, save for a few dentists operating into the 1890s.  The last inclusion of tooth transplantation as a technique in a dentistry textbook appeared in Dental Surgery and Pathology of 1919 (Colyer 1919, 757).

A fashionable dentist’s practice: healthy teeth are being extracted from poor children to create dentures for the wealthy. Coloured etching by T. Rowlandson, 1787. Image: The Wellcome Trust Library.

Rowlandson’s remarkable and famous Transplanting of Teeth (1787, above) depicts this bodily transaction very clearly as a financial transaction: a couple of poor, dirty street urchins stand by the door, holding their mouths, lamenting the loss of their teeth. One child gazes at the solitary coin for which she exchanged her tooth.  The attention of all other characters is on the other two thirds of the image. These two child figures are isolated. In the centre of the image, a well-dressed dentist extracts the tooth of what appears to be a young chimney-sweep, his hat and brush lying on the floor between his legs.  Watching the procedure is an older woman smelling salts to ease the pain after her own extraction, sitting on the same couch as the sweep waiting for the his tooth to be placed into her mouth.  To the right, as if part of an industrial process, an elderly and opulently-dressed gentleman inspects his mouth in a small wall-mirror held to his face.  And to the far right, a young, beautiful lady of quality, seated on a visibly expensive chair, is making herself available for inspection.  A sign on the door reads: ‘Most Money Given for Live Teeth’, suggesting that dead teeth were also used – though not preferred – as well as the ‘live’ ones depicted in the cartoon.  Though not obvious in the image, the British Museum’s Catalogue of Political and Personal Satires points out that ‘a placard on the wall is headed by a coronet and two ducks, indicating quackery: Baron Ron – Dentist to her High Mightiness the Empress of Russia’ (George 1937, 745).

Here, it is evident that there is a newly acquired monetary value of teeth: they are currency and commodity, traded straight out of the mouths of the poor into the mouths of the rich.

The teeth, as well as being bodily excreta alienated from the body by their position at its margins, are alienated once more by this operation, subjected to market forces.

Paul Craddock is a doctoral student at The London Consortium.

Works Cited

Allen, Charles (1685), The Operator for the Teeth, York: John White.

Carroll, Lewis (1866), Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll with Forty-two Illustrations by John Tenniel, London: Macmillan and Co.

Colyer, J.F. (1919), Dental Surgery and Pathology, London: Longmans Green and Co.

Paré, Ambroise (1634), The workes of that famous chirurgion Ambrose Parey translated out of Latine and compared with the French by Th: Johnson, London: Th: Cotes and R. Young.

George, Mary Dorothy (1937), Catalogue of Political and Personal Satires, Preserved in the Department of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum, vol.6, London: British Museum.

Rowlandson, Thomas (1787), Transplanting of Teeth, London: WM Holland.

This entry was posted in Ideas and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s