Our relationship with teeth is uneven, messy and grim

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EYES are not the window into the soul—teeth are. They can be rotten, wise or broken; they reveal our diet, health and wealth. As babies, we learn about the world around us by munching our way through it. Teeth are the only exposed part of our skeleton while we are alive. And when we die, they will be the part of our body that longest remains on earth. If we perish in a particularly grisly fashion, our dental records may be what identifies us.

These are all good reasons to visit the dentist. But, as a new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London shows, for most of history that visit was an ordeal that didn’t involve a dentist armed with anaesthetic and suction tubes so much as a tooth-puller with crude pliers. The craft was more a spectacle than a science. One practitioner, known as Le Grand Thomas, made his living in 18th-century Paris by lifting people off the ground by their teeth, letting gravity do the yanking. 

Pierre Fauchard, the first self-styled dentiste, helped put a stop to that with his scientific…Continue reading

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