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
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.