Waterloo Teeth

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Waterloo Teeth

(taken from the New Scientist - 16 June 2001)

The night of 18 June 1815 was one to remember. After 23 years of war in Europe, Napoleon faced the combined might of England, Holland and Prussia at Waterloo. By 10 pm, the battle was over. The French were defeated and 50,000 men lay dead or wounded on the battlefield. The casualties were high but for one group of people that was reason to celebrate. They were the dentists who were about to benefit from the great tooth bonanza. In the early part of the 19th century, patients with plenty of money but very few teeth were prepared to pay enormous sums for a good set of dentures. The best were made with real human teeth at the front. Most of the time demand for second-hand incisors far outstripped supply, but wars helped make up the shortfall. The windfall from Waterloo provided enough to ship supplies all round Europe and even across the Atlantic.

Waterloo was a well-timed battle. By the end of the fighting, night was closing in and the battlefield scavengers could go about their work unseen. In the gloom, shadowy figures flitted from corpse to corpse, gathering up the soldiers' weapons and winkling out any valuables tucked inside their torn and bloodied uniforms. Then came the final act of desecration: with expertise many a dental surgeon might envy, they deftly pulled and pocketed any intact front teeth. Taking teeth from the dead to replace those lost by the living was nothing new. But this time the scale of it was different. The flood of teeth onto the market was so huge that dentures made from second-hand teeth acquired a new name: Waterloo teeth. Far from putting clients off, this was a positive selling point. Better to have teeth from a relatively fit and healthy young man killed by cannonball or sabre than incisors plucked from the jaws of a disease-riddled corpse decaying in the grave or from a hanged man left dangling too long on the gibbet.

Until the eighteenth century, false teeth were made in much the same way as they had been since the sixth century BC. Then, the most skilled manufacturers of dental prosthetics were the Etruscans. They did a fantastic line in gold bridgework. Depending on the size of the gap, they made a series of gold hoops. The outer ones fitted around the nearest sound teeth, and the rest were filled with artificial teeth carved from ivory or bone and riveted in place with a gold pin. These not only looked impressive, they were secure enough to eat with. The same cannot be said of many later designs.

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries people dreaded losing their teeth: the toothless had sunken cheeks and looked old before their time. Without teeth, it was hard to speak intelligibly. In the upper ranks of society, the toothless tended to keep their mouths shut rather than reveal their naked gums. For those who could afford it, the answer was a set of false teeth but dentures rarely fitted. They looked nothing like the real thing and in most cases were not secure enough to risk eating with. Some sets of teeth were carved from a single piece of ivory or bone. In the more sophisticated designs, artificial teeth were riveted to a plate made of ox bone or hippo ivory. The teeth were carved from the same material - unless dentists could lay their hands on human teeth.

The biggest drawback of all was that the lack of enamel on bone and ivory meant decay soon set in. The result was inevitable: a rotten taste in the mouth and evil-smelling breath. The fashion for fans was prompted by the all-too-common need to hide bad teeth and stinking breath. Dentures made from human teeth were better. They looked better, resisted wear and kept their colour longer - but they were still liable to decay and eventually needed replacing. What dentists wanted more than anything was a steady supply of human teeth. They could never get enough, so prices were phenomenal. In 1781, Paul Jullion of Gerrard Street in London was charging half a guinea for a single artificial tooth, and four times that for a human one. A row of artificial upper teeth cost £20 and 10 shillings. The real thing fetched an astronomical £31 and 10 shillings.

Sometimes the poor could be persuaded to part with good teeth. In 1783, a dentist advertised in a New York newspaper, offering 2 guineas each for sound teeth. But people had to be desperate to sell their teeth. The dead did not need persuading. For the discerning patient, teeth from the battlefield were the best they could hope for. It was not always what they got. Many second-hand teeth came from mortuaries, the dissecting room and the gallows. The biggest purveyors of teeth were the "resurrectionists" who stole corpses to sell to medical schools. Teeth were one of the perks of the job. Even if they dug up a body too far gone for the anatomy classroom, they could still pocket a tidy sum by selling the teeth.

Astley Cooper, the most popular surgeon in London in the early nineteenth century, kept a whole band of resurrectionists in business. He bought the bodies, but the teeth went elsewhere. According to his nephew Bransby Cooper, author of The Life of Astley Cooper, the bodysnatchers did not always bother to take the body.

The graves were not always disturbed to obtain possession of the entire body, for the teeth alone at this time offered sufficient remuneration for the trouble and risk incurred in such undertakings. Every dentist in London would at this time purchase teeth from these men.

Needless to say, the dentists would never admit it. Instead, they reassured their patients that their teeth came from the safest of sources - the battlefield. Before the Battle of Waterloo, the Peninsular War had bolstered supplies. Tooth hunters followed the armies, moving in as soon as the living had left the field. "Only let there be a battle and there will be no want of teeth; I'll draw them as fast as the men are knocked down," says one such hunter in The Life of Astley Cooper. There were so many spare teeth that they were shipped abroad by the barrel. In 1819, American dentist Levi Spear Parmly, the inventor of floss, wrote that he had "in his possession thousands of teeth extracted from bodies of all ages that have fallen in battle".

By this time, the first porcelain teeth had begun to appear. To start with they were too white, too brittle and made a horrid grating noise. Then, in 1837, London denture maker Claudius Ash, driven by his hatred of handling dead men's teeth, perfected porcelain dentures and began to manufacture them commercially. Even so, trade in the real thing continued well into the second half of the century. Supplies increased during the Crimean War of the 1850s and in 1865 the Pall Mall Gazette reported that some London dentists still refused to switch to porcelain. They now had a whole new source: on the other side of the Atlantic the tooth robbers were hard at work, cleaning up behind the armies of the American Civil War.


Early in 2008 I received an email from Jeremy Main who gave me the following information; my thanks to him.

Claudius Ash was an ancestor through my mother, Mary [née] Ash and Claudius was an ascendant. Claudius actually got into dentistry as a battlefield surgeon at Waterloo and it was he who initially marketed the teeth he extracted from the corpses after the battle as Waterloo Teeth, they being the first commercially-available dental prosthetics.

I don't think the thing [removal of teeth] was done on  the battlefield: there are a number of markers around the junction of the Chaussée de Charleroi and the Rue de la Croix (the road down to the Butte) which suggest the presence of mass graves in the area, and it's only metalware which turns up on the battlefield, no bones, unlike in Flanders, so any tooth-pulling en masse would have been done there, rather than all over the battlefield. The medical facilities, such as they were, were in the village of Waterloo (this was where Uxbridge has his leg treated), with some advanced aid stations around Joli Bois and Ohain. Many wounded had to get back to Brussels before treatment, however.


See The Battle of Waterloo web site for a detailed account of the battle.
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Last modified 26 October, 2013

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