Tuesday, 8 November 2016

British Dental Association Museum

64 Wimpole Street
London W1G 8YS

Thursday November 3 2016



It would seem perverse if you had an appointment at the dentist, for actual treatment, to be visiting the Dental Museum  barely an hour before but that was the situation for one of us this week. It was partly the proximity as Wimpole Street for over a century has been the ‘go-to’ address for private doctors, many of whom can still be found here between the  institutions and august bodies – Number 1 is the HQ for the Royal Society of Medicine, the nurses were round the corner – but today we were heading for the dentists. Many of the houses are sturdy and handsome Georgian terraces but the BDA must have been  ‘filling’ (Ho-ho) where a gap appeared as the building dates from 1967. (By the way the numbering is so long-established the numbers go up one side and down the other – none of that odds and evens business.)

As Jo said, dentists are in the main disliked not for who they are but for what they do, which is often to cause pain, so everyone at the BDA was totally charming and welcoming. It is their professional body so there are numerous meeting and lecture rooms and we were directed to the museum, which is just off the library/archive on the ground floor. I suppose with the exception of the large chairs (and there is one of those on display) and the spittoons much of what dentists use comes small and the exhibits are well displayed and well captioned in a handful of themed cabinets.


You are drawn into the exhibition by a series of early/mid-20th century posters encouraging parents to care for their children’s teeth – save those precious little pearls. Baby teething is a fairly brutal process and truth to say teeth can cause discomfort throughout life. Sadly Jo and I belong to what is known in the trade as ‘the heavy metal generation’ namely post war children where a combination of sugar coming off rationing, Vitamin C supplements coming in syrupy forms and relative ignorance about tooth care means we have more fillings than teeth, whereas the next generations benefited from the addition of fluoride and more awareness of the damage of sugar in all its forms.

But back to the museum which is arranged thematically.

Dentistry has a very short history compared to medicine – the first text book appeared in 1728 in French whilst in the UK it was mid-19th century before practitioners started researching, writing and practising in a more coherent way: up until then any ‘dentistry’ (more likely brutal extractions) was done by the barber or the blacksmith, the latter having the tools. Sir John Tomes, who is honoured here, not only helped improve the instruments and the research but also became a lecturer and founded the British Dental Association in 1880. Up until then practitioners needed no qualifications and anyone could call themselves a dentist – it was as late as 1921 that the Dentists Act finally ensured those extracting and filling your teeth had been appropriately trained.


Decay is easy to spot and there are several examples of rotted and sometimes filled teeth that were found in the remains recently excavated in Farringdon as part of the  Elizabeth Line construction works.

Though some of these sets of teeth are probably later, there being perhaps several different ages of burial ground?  One set is filled with a little gold – unusual in what might have been a paupers’ burial site but who knows how anyone landed up there?


The 20th century saw advances in drilling and filling (there are foot and hand operated drills for you to try, making early dentistry seem quite a ‘physical’ job) with the invention of amalgam fillings – a mixture of silver coins and mercury. 
Jo and I certainly remembered those early heavy slow drills then replaced by higher speed ones – no sound effects at the Museum but it did not need much imagination  to remember the earlier ones, a small scale woodwork drill only noisier, let alone the whine of the current ones.. Gold has long been a favourite material for fillings and crowns as it is totally tasteless and does not decay or crack, yet can be moulded accurately, so it remains a preferred material.


Of course if drilling and crowning does not work the next stage is extraction (multiple forceps on display) followed by ‘false teeth’. Again the evolution here is interesting – ranging from small carved bits of ivory (hippo or walrus being the most favoured), which are then tied in place with fine silk threads – how insecure this must have felt? The big revolution came when vulcanite  was invented (by Mr Goodyear).

The 20th century not only saw a range of new materials open to the medical and dental professions but with the proliferation of professional expertise (the first dental school was opened in 1889)  there were also dental dispensaries for the poor before the advent of the National Health Service.

Alongside these technical innovations the profession also used anaesthesia – I will not elaborate as we have already visited the Centre for Anaesthesia and it makes for strangely bland and uninteresting displays.


Not so the section on Prevention – from the jolly posters advocating better care of your children’s teeth to early toothbrushes made of bones (the handles) and pig’s hair… There is everything here from novelty toothbrush cases to early forms of tooth powder. William Addis produced the first toothbrush
(there’s a nice little film here if you can get your computer to load it). Preventive dentistry became serious after the First World War when the Services realised that significant numbers of recruits were turned away because of poor or rotten teeth.


This concludes the main exhibition but we were encouraged to go downstairs where there was a special exhibition on dentistry during the First World War when their skills were needed not so much for the day to day fillings etc but for repairs following serious facial injuries. This is where dentistry meets up with maxilla-facial surgery, a later surgical speciality.

We thought the displays were well presented – rather than cases full of similar instruments they explain more fully, and in a very accessible way, including  some films,  the history and use of key items and significant developments acknowledging the pioneers of their profession.  In amongst the exhibits are frequent cartoons (not easily reproduced) and other humorous touches – we liked the tooth shaped (perfect of course) stools, and the ‘shop’ made an instant sale with its clockwork chattering wind-up teeth.

Next step – book that check-up… 



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