From Ancient Egypt to the Nazis: 16 Horrors of Dentistry Through the Centuries
From Ancient Egypt to the Nazis: 16 Horrors of Dentistry Through the Centuries

From Ancient Egypt to the Nazis: 16 Horrors of Dentistry Through the Centuries

D.G. Hewitt - August 17, 2018

From Ancient Egypt to the Nazis: 16 Horrors of Dentistry Through the Centuries
Hundreds of sets of teeth were pulled from dead soldiers at Waterloo. BBC.

The Battle of Waterloo was a great day for dentists!

In 18th and 19th century England, the upper classes were living the good life. One of their biggest vices was sugar, imported from the Caribbean. But not only did the trade in sugar make many obscenely rich – albeit on the back of other people’s misery – it also made the teeth of upper-class gentlemen and ladies fall out. As a result, dentists were also getting rich, especially those who specialized in false teeth.

In most cases, dentures consisted of an ivory plate fitted with real human teeth. By the 1780s, such dentures were so popular that there was a genuine shortage of teeth to use in their production. And, of course, this led to exploitation. Poor people would sell their teeth. They would seek out backstreet ‘dentists’ (often nothing more than butchers or ironmongers) and have their front teeth extracted without any medication. They would be rewarded a relatively paltry sum for their troubles, but still, desperate times led to desperate measures being taken. But still, this wasn’t enough to satisfy demand.

Then, in 1815, the British met Napoleon’s army on the battlefield of Waterloo in Belgium. The battle was hugely significant, and hugely bloody. Thousands of English, French and Prussian soldiers lost their lives as Wellington led his troops to victory. And once the battle was over, the looting of the bodies began. Both surviving troops keen to supplement their poor pay, as well as enterprising locals, took pliers to the battlefield and pulled out as many teeth as they could. And that was just the beginning of the gruesome enterprise.

The looters would then sort the teeth out. They would find teeth of similar size and colour and make complete sets, which they would then string together. These sets of teeth would be boiled and the roots chopped off. Only then they would be sold to specialist dentists in London or Paris, to be made into dentures and fitted into the mouths of the wealthy elite.

From Ancient Egypt to the Nazis: 16 Horrors of Dentistry Through the Centuries
Thousands of people a year died in Victorian England as a result of dentistry gone wrong. Daily Mail.

In Victorian England, a trip to the dentist could prove fatal

A number of medical advances were made in Victorian-era England, including significant advances in the field of anesthetics. But dentistry remained almost as brutal as it had been in the Middle Ages. Quite simply, if you were unlucky enough to suffer from tooth decay, and if the pain got really bad, then there was really only one option available: the tooth needed to be pulled. Or yanked out, to be more accurate. For even in the finest parts of London, tooth extraction was carried out by local barbers or blacksmiths – after all, they usually had the tools for it.

Since many so-called dentists operated out of dirty workshops, including blacksmiths’ workshops, conditions were far from hygienic. Unsurprisingly, then, infections were commonplace. In fact, while you may enjoy some respite from the pain of toothache, getting a backstreet extraction could lead to even greater problems. Nobody knows exactly how many people died from botched treatment, infections and other complications such as excessive blood loss, at the hands of unqualified dentists. However, in London alone, it’s estimated that tens of thousands of people lost their lives after seeking treatment for rotten teeth during the Victorian era.

Things did, however, get a bit better after 1878. That was the year that the Dentists Act was passed by the British parliament. From that point onwards, only properly qualified practitioners could use the title of ‘dentist’ or ‘dental surgeon’. Of course, while richer members of society were able – and happy – to pay for the services of a dentist with the proper training and credentials, the vast majority could not. As a result, dentistry went underground. Blacksmiths and barbers still pulled teeth but did so illegally. In fact, it wasn’t really until the National Health Service was established in Britain in 1948 that the illicit trade in backstreet dentistry came to an end altogether.

From Ancient Egypt to the Nazis: 16 Horrors of Dentistry Through the Centuries
Painless Parker brought affordable dentistry to the masses and made himself a fortune. Pinterest.

‘Painless’ Parker: A scourge or a savior?

Depending on who you were to ask, Edgar R.R. Parker was either a shameless, irresponsible quack or a much-loved helper of the poor. Certainly, the many thousands of people he treated for toothache or dental decay in the first few decades of the 20th century would have believed him to be a fine man. The American Dental Association, however, took a different view: they called him “a menace to the dignity of the profession”. So who was this important yet hugely controversial figure in the history of American dentistry?

Born in 1872, Parker graduated from Philadelphia Dental College (a school that would grow into the School of Dentistry of Temple University). Degree in hand, he went into private practice, but soon became disillusioned. After six weeks without seeing a single patient, he began to think outside the box. Not only did he start advertising in the local press, he also hired a former manager of P.T. Barnum to help him take his ‘Parker Dental Circus’ on the road. It was a huge success. People would flock to his horse drawn-wagon. While they waited their turn, a marching band would play, adding to the carnival atmosphere while also (more importantly) drowning out the screams and moans of those in the dental chair.

Parker charged 50 cents for each extraction and even offered a patient $5 if it hurt. On a good day, he claimed to be pulling 300 teeth. And when a judge barred him from advertising his services as “painless”, he legally changed his name to Painless Parker. The American Dental Association’s disapproval did not harm him. By the end of his career, Parker owned 70 dental practices and was earning millions a year What’s more, history has been kind to him, too and he is seen as a pioneer in the fight for affordable dental care.

From Ancient Egypt to the Nazis: 16 Horrors of Dentistry Through the Centuries
For many years, richer families would have their own scrapers to remove plaque by force. The Science Museum.

For centuries, plaque was removed by brute force

Tartar and plaque have long been the enemies of dentists and oral hygienists. These days, they are removed by pressure cleaners or other modern tools, and the process is usually quick, efficient and, though uncomfortable, largely painless. In the 18th century, however, things were different. By this point, dentists had recognised the importance of keeping teeth clean of tartar and plaque, but they lacked the sophistication to carry out such treatments without resorting to brute strength.

In his arsenal, a dentist in Enlightenment-era Europe would have had a kit of ‘descaling instruments’. These varied in size, though the design was the same. With a sharp point at one end and a handle, usually made of ivory or mother of pearl or, if the dentist was not so rich and successful yet, of wood, these were used to scrape away plaque deposits. Like many dental instruments of the time, they looked more like woodworking tools than medical implements – and they were just as subtle. Since most patients would have had poor dental hygiene in general, teeth could be loose and gums sore, making the whole process even more painful.

According to some historians, some people might have had descaling instruments of their own and done their own teeth cleaning. However, given that dental hygiene was really only the preserve of the upper classes and the cost of such tools, it’s likely only the richest members of society were able to go plaque-free.

From Ancient Egypt to the Nazis: 16 Horrors of Dentistry Through the Centuries
Soldiers in the trenches were often treated in makeshift dental surgeries. The Australian Army

Dentistry in the trenches – yet another horror of World War One

In the history of World War One, dentistry is often overlooked – and understandably so. Nevertheless, the leaders of both sides soon learned that the oral health of their soldiers was of huge importance. After all, a soldier in constant agony from toothache would not be an efficient fighter and could even be a liability for himself and his comrades. From the early days of the Great War, then, makeshift dental surgeries were set up on the front line, with troops able to make use of brutal but efficient healthcare.

In the British Army, for example, generals soon wised up to the importance of keeping their soldiers’ teeth in good shape. Most of the men in the trenches were from working class backgrounds, and the vast majority had never seen a dentist in their lives. The oral health of the troops was, therefore, pretty poor to say the least. What’s more, the rations of tough biscuits were also hard on the teeth and led to a number of problems. Often, a doctor or other medic would be pressed into service as a frontline dentist. In some instances, a special dentist’s chair was fashioned out of planks of wood from the trenches. Here, the patient was just held down while the troublesome tooth was extracted – there really wasn’t the time or space for any more complex procedures.

The oral health of the British troops was given special attention after the Battle of Aisne in October of 1914. Here, General Douglas Haig came down with toothache and could not be treated. He had to travel to Paris to visit a proper dentist. After that, he contacted the War Office and ordered them to recruit specialist dentists into the army and get these men sent to the frontlines as a priority. Nevertheless, many men returned from the war with their mouths destroyed by the tough biscuits that were rationed out to the men.

From Ancient Egypt to the Nazis: 16 Horrors of Dentistry Through the Centuries
Qualified dentists put their training to evil use in Nazi concentration and extermination camps. Holocaust Memorial Day.

Dentists participated in the atrocities of the Holocaust

The horrors of dentistry are not confined to ancient times or the Middle Ages. In fact, one of the most horrific episodes in the history of dentistry came in the 20th century. During the height of the Second World War, qualified dentists worked at Nazi concentration and extermination camps. Here, they used their expertise to remove gold fillings from prisoners, with the money being sent back to help fund the Third Reich’s war efforts.

In 1959, Heman Pook, a German dentist, went on trial in Berlin. He was accused of using his professional skills to remove the gold teeth and fillings from the mouths of murdered concentration camp inmates. Addressing the court, Pook admitted carrying out thousands of such extractions, though he argued he was merely following orders. More specifically, along with several other qualified dentists, he took out gold teeth from the victims on the orders of Heinrich Himmler. The practice earned the Nazi regime millions of dollars a year.

In an interesting twist, in 2009, an historian found evidence to suggest that Adolf Hitler himself had benefitted from this grisly practice. According to this theory, the Nazi leader had 10 gold fillings put in over the course of 2010. It’s believed that the gold used for Hitler’s teeth was taken from the Jewish victims of the holocaust. The same research also found that Hitler’s personal dentist, a man called Hugo Blaschke, amassed huge quantities of dental gold – around 50kg to be precise – again, most likely to have been taken from the Nazi regime’s unfortunate victims.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Dental pelican for tooth pulling, Europe, 1701-1800.” The Science Museum, History of Medicine Website.

“The dentures made from the teeth of dead soldiers at Waterloo.” BBC News, June 2015.

“Biscuit for breakfast – trench warfare was hard on soldiers’ teeth.” The Conversation, November 2016.

“The troubling history behind the healthy, happy smile.” The Spectator, May 2018.

“Man Was Enduring the Dentist’s Drill 9,000 Years Ago.” New York Times, April 2006.

“The History of Dentistry.” The American Dental Education Association.

“Dental History – an Overview.” Science Direct.

“A Brief History of America’s Most Outrageous Dentist.” Smithsonian Magazine.