A Trip to the Dentist and Waterloo Teeth

I hate going to the dentist. I know I shouldn’t say this aloud, especially around my grandchildren, but I spent this morning in dread, knowing I had two deep cavities that would require a cap removal and fillings and two possible root canals. I wasn’t looking forward to the numbing needle thrust deep into my gum and the laughing gas that makes me all loopy and the grinding, the shrill, high-pitched sound of the drill, and the continual requests to open wider, wider, still wider, please.

So I turned to history, as I often do to get a perspective when I need one.

I could be heading to the barber shop, I told myself to have my teeth yanked out by a burly barber or to a smithy where a blacksmith would do the job with a pair of pliers. Or I could be walking into one of the first dentists’ offices where they used chisels and hammers to knock out a bad tooth. With these tools, the force needed to jerk a tooth from the gums often caused the tooth to break leaving embedded roots and tooth parts behind.

Even the privileged suffered. The face of Queen Elizabeth I was often swollen from gum abscesses, and the teeth that weren’t missing from her mouth were yellowed and so uneven her speech was hard to understand. And George Washington lost his teeth, replacing them, not with wood as you read in children’s stories, but with teeth extracted from animal and human corpses.

For a nice pair of dentures, you held out for human teeth. But the less privileged classes of Britain couldn’t afford these dentures, not until after the Battle of Waterloo. The bodies of tens of thousands of the soldiers who died in that battle, were stripped not just of valuables but also of teeth. These teeth shipped to Britain in barrels were made into affordable dentures known as Waterloo teeth.

Being a wimp for any kind of pain, I need to find ways to gird myself up. And history usually helps. Thinking about Waterloo teeth took my mind off the drilling. Almost.

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