One summer night 200 years ago, a band of scavengers stumbled across a bloody battlefield in Belgium where 50,000 soldiers lay dead and dying. Their mission was to extract shiny white teeth to replace the rotten stumps in the mouths of London's elite.
The use of dead men's teeth to make dentures was not new, but the most common sources at that time were executed criminals or rotting corpses stolen from their graves by the resurrectionists. Ivory was another option, but teeth carved from this material tended to stain and quickly began to smell rotten. That is why the healthy young men who took part in the battle of Waterloo in 1815 represented such an appealing prospect and the British looters were relishing the opportunity to make a fortune from their haul. One said: "There'll be no want of teeth, I'll draw them as fast as the men are knocked down."
There'll be no want of teeth, I'll draw them as fast as the men are knocked down.
Dentures were a much-desired accessory for the wealthy because their own teeth were in a poor state, largely thanks to an insatiable taste for sugar, which was then being imported in large quantities from British colonies. Unfortunately for these well-heeled recipients, their new bite was unlikely to last very long – contamination, lack of dental hygiene and nutritionally inadequate diets virtually guaranteed a poor outcome.
But this didn't stop the roaring trade. After Waterloo, the Crimean War in the 1840s offered another opportunity for harvesting teeth from the fallen, and a thriving import market emerged in the wake of the American Civil War in the 1860s. Dental supply catalogues of the period show that second-hand teeth were an important constituent of dentures throughout most of the century.
Photo credit: Science Photo Library
Meanwhile, enterprising dental technicians were developing more durable and comfortable alternatives. A London jeweller called Claudius Ash was an early innovator, manufacturing porcelain dentures mounted onto gold plates with springs and wire from the 1820s. While Ash himself died in 1854, Claudius Ash & Sons took advantage of a new material called vulcanite rubber which could be moulded to a patient's gums for a more comfortable fit.
Rubber, and later acrylic, were also much cheaper so that by the twentieth century dentures had become an affordable treatment for many patients. For a short time after the foundation of the NHS in 1948, dentures were free for those who needed them, although soaring demand ensured that they became one of the first items to attract a charge in 1951. Plastic dentures are now a Band Three treatment costing over £200.
As for Claudius Ash & Sons, the company grew into a highly successful international manufacturer of dental products and became part of the Amalgamated Dental Company in 1924. The company is no longer trading, but with an estimated one in five British adults currently wearing removable dentures1, it's clear that millions still owe a sizeable debt to pioneers like Claudius Ash and his successors.
Waterloo teeth can be seen at a special exhibition at the BDA Museum to mark the bicentenary of the Battle. For more information, visit: www.bda.org