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God’s teeth! or sans teeth, sans everything

Posted By: Louise Foxcroft on December 11th, 2013

Imagine your once-friendly dentist’s surgery just around the corner becoming part of your personal Axis of Evil. Imagine having FIVE, yes five, injections within the space of half an hour. Cue piercing crescendo of drill and tangible veil of misery descending. All this suffered to the muted tra-las of Tracey Chapman as auditory sedative. Hours later [this is no longer real time] you are ejected, unprepared, into the street looking like a before and after advert for Botox. The left half of your face is eerily smoothed of lines and emotion, a passive mask of the undead-but-gorgeous, whilst the right side is horribly contorted in a rictus of melancholic agony. A sort of Greek tragedy made flesh. Ok, fine, it might be slightly cheaper than going to the Wild Orchid Beauty Salon, next to Roy’s Central Heating and Plumbing showrooms, but it just doesn’t have as much glamour. No, there’s nothing to laugh at, at all.

Never underestimate the influence of teeth on the psyche and on human intercourse. You do so at your peril. We gnash and snarl when angered, and the more fearsome the state of your teeth, the more terrible the effect. This could, it’s true, produce a disinclination to laugh or smile, but it was not always so. Dental treatments were once considered attractively ornamental, and embarrassment over false teeth dates only from the nineteenth century. Edward Samson wrote a magnificent pre-war, post-anaesthetic labour of love, The Immortal Tooth (1939), summing up the whole cosmic orthodontic scene. Samson’s other titles include: Toothful Essays; Black Ivory; Down in the Mouth; Common Sense Dentistry; and, you’ll be glad to hear, Man Survives. In The Immortal Tooth, however, we learn how that apparently inanimate part has shaped humankind’s intellectual and physical evolution. There is talk of the development of men and apes, and how the tooth has always been there as a friend, a guide, and a teacher. It is the only organ of the human body which has been regarded as divine, deified and worshipped under the protection of the sun. Samson is clearly a man dentally deranged. To him the tooth exists as the guardian of the universal maw. It is a weapon of defence, giver of sovereignty, symbol of fate, emblem of life, object of diverse superstitions and myths, and at the same time the key to many scientific problems. It is the only part of man which possesses its own patron saint, St. Apollonia, and, furthermore, has saved a million lives yet sent more than one to the gallows.

Such a fearsome organ is rightly dreadful when it is angry. According to Pliny, teeth exude a poison which could cloud a looking glass. If revealed to innocent unfledged pigeons, these would take ill and die. Marcellus advised ridding yourself of toothache by spitting into the mouth of a frog and bidding it make off with the agony. Or, as the ancient Mexicans did, one could bite off the head of a live mouse. O magical rodent! A prophylactic mouse, one to be taken between meals. The Chinese advised making pills from a paste of roast garlic, human milk and horseradish before introducing one into the nostril on the opposite side to where the toothache is felt. By the fourteenth century, tales of a vile toothworm had reached Europe from the East. These infernal creatures were thought to gnaw relentlessly, insatiably, away at your teeth. But, should you be so molested, the small beasts could be banished by yawning widely over an infusion of hollylead, hartwort and sage so that ‘the worms shall fall into the bowl’. A century later, toothworms aside, you might treat your agonies by plugging the hollow tooth with raven’s dung, after first colouring it with Pellitory of Spain, ‘that the sick recognize it not nor know what it be’. Those that knew their avian excreta were not fooled and thus suffered doubly. Elizabeth I, having terrible toothache in 1578, was encouraged by the Bishop of London, ‘a man of high Courage’, to have the offending tooth pulled; the Bishop had a good one of his own extracted to show her that the pain could be endured. Less fortunate others had their teeth wrenched out of their heads in the market place by a barber, blacksmith, or shoemaker whilst a boy beat a drum to drown the screams. By the end of the century the queen was still ‘frolicy and merry’, putting ‘many fine cloths into her mouth to bear out her cheeks’. You could have a set of teeth made of hippopotamus ivory, bone, rot-proof porcelain, mineral paste, and of human teeth plundered from corpses in vaults or from battlefields. Waterloo and American Civil War teeth were shipped over to Britain by the barrel load.

When the Goodyear Rubber Co. patented the revolutionary Vulcanite teeth, tragedy was not far behind. The company treasurer, Josiah Bacon, was murdered in 1879 in a San Francisco hotel by a desperate dentist, twice in trouble for patent infringement. These poor men were not the only casualties of orthodontic progress: Horace Wells, watching a public entertainment on the hilarious effects of laughing gas in 1844, realised that inhaling nitrous oxide rendered the participants insensible to pain but, unfortunately, he went on to experiment with other drugs, became addicted to chloroform and, coming out of a stupor in great exhilaration, attacked two prostitutes in the street with a phial of acid. Broken, he committed suicide before he could come to trial.

The introduction of celluloid teeth was not without its problems either, they might flare up in flames at any moment should the wearer be a smoker. And what of the, albeit fictional, use of false teeth as a weapon of marital disquietude? Sherlock Holmes took on a famous case where the ‘husband was a teetotaler, there was no other woman [but] he had drifted into the habit of winding up every meal by taking out his false teeth and hurling them at his wife’. No, really, those of us long in the tooth, yet dentate still, must count our blessings. Remember TS Eliot and think of your teeth as ‘accidental stars with a talent for squad-drill’. Failing that, if you have a mouthful of porcelain or acrylic you can always flaunt them or even pawn them, as a resourceful Edith Sitwell did her parent’s dentures during times of financial crisis.

Keep smiling.