18 January 2017 | 5 °C

The London Museum That's All About Teeth

The London Museum That's All About Teeth

A set of real human teeth, stuck into metal jaws and practised on by dental students over 100 years ago:

You'll find it at this British Dental Association building at 64 Wimpole Street in Marylebone...

...which houses this pint-size treasure trove of dental artefacts:

On your way into reception, admire these cartoon toothbrushes...

... and this painting from 1929 entitled 'The Dentist'. It shows Dr Conrad Ackner working on the artist's wife. Ackner loved the painting so much he used it on his Christmas cards. That landed him in hot water with the General Medical Council, who considered it advertising.

And so into the museum proper — an intimate cavity of the BDA, with a solid gold filling of gimcrack: vintage dentist's chairs, dentures and drills through the ages, Victorian toothpaste packaging, various evil looking doo-dahs, and a smattering of tooth-related satire from the likes of cartoonist Thomas Rowlandson. This place is a sight more fun than going to the actual dentist.

While we may moan about our annual check-up, spare a thought for the poor souls who had to have their bad teeth ripped out by blacksmiths. Or, like in this model, by their school teacher:

The museum explains how proper dentistry really took off in the 18th century. Pioneering books like 1728's Le Chirugien Dentiste — the first accurate book on dental practise — paved the way. Here it is looking a little blurry behind some glass:

But you don't have to be a dentaphile to appreciate this place; there's London trivia aplenty. For example, in the 1760s, Martin Van Butchchell's real human teeth dentures set customers back over £100 — the most expensive in the city. Maybe this walrus ivory number would have cost less:

As this display explains, elephant and hippo ivory were once a popular denture material too, as were the teeth of dead soldiers (sometimes known as 'Waterloo teeth').

Some of the artefacts look more like instruments of torture, like this piece of teeth-straightening head gear:

...and these frightful looking things to stop thumb-sucking...

...while these screaming vulcanite dentures wouldn't look out of place in the London Dungeons:

But there's beauty in the world of dentistry too, such as this plush instrument set made in 1860. Surely all that shiny shiny would help you forget you're having a molar yanked out?

Victorian John Tomes — the first president of the British Dental Association — gets a good airing in the museum. One of his great achievements was the 'dentificator', a machine which took a plaster cast of a mouth, and replicated it exactly in ivory. Here's the chair and accompanying equipment that sat in Tomes's Cavendish Square practice:

Note the fancy spittoon and foot-driven dentist's drill.

We overheard one visitor saying she remembered foot-powered drills. Still, that's got to be better than this:

Though many of the exhibits are enough to put you off your lunch, the museum's only open at lunchtime — on Tuesday and Thursdays from 1pm-2pm. They missed a trick not staying open until tooth-hurty.

You can also make an appointment outside these hours, which is fitting for the subject matter.

And by the way, you can still buy cards with Ackner's beloved painting on it. You'll find them in the little shop...

...where you might as well pick up a box of these while you're at it:

For more information visit the British Dental Museum's website.

Last Updated 06 January 2017