Something To Chew Over: the history of dentures
Customer: I'd like a copy of "An Illustrated History of False Teeth." Shopkeeper: My God, you've got guts. -Monty Python
If you’re going to “chew someone out”, or “chew something over”, or “chew on a cob of corn”, unless you have your original teeth, you’re going to need some false ones, if just to talk.
Dentures, as single teeth, whole plates and partial bridges, date back more than 2,000 years to the Estrucans. These were the same people who advised that to prevent tooth decay, one should rinse their mouth with dog teeth boiled in wine. As early as 700B.C. hippopotamus and whale ivory provided the materials for skilfully crafted chompers, a level of quality that somehow dropped off until the 1800’s.
Ancient Greeks and Romans were inordinately proud of their dentures, consisting of an imitation tooth bound to a real tooth with gold wire. They were proud, and poorer for it, since the work costs a mint. (Apparently some things never change.) The truly rich got theirs made from gold, silver, agate and mother of pearl.
In later years, there would be the distasteful (yes, pun intended) practice of using teeth of the dead. One memorable period occurred during the Battle of Waterloo, when bags were retrieved from the fallen soldiers.
In 1774, French dental wizards Duchateau and Dubois de Chemant crafted the first set of porcelain dentures. People looked forward to a great improvement on their old dentures, which were often hinged with springs, and had the embarrassing habit of popping out of a person’s mouth. Unfortunately, the new “technology” was of little use to George Washington, who was well known to have suffered greatly with his teeth. And “wooden” you know it, those presidential choppers were never made of wood. Various materials, yes..but never wood. This was proven in 1999 when a touring exhibit of Washington artefacts includes his “artificials”. But at least he had something to smile with, if not about. Almost 200 years before, Queen Elizabeth I had resorted to stuffing the gaps in her royal grin, with cloth. Giuseppangelo Fonzi forged on after these revolutionary events, with a single porcelain tooth held in place by a steel pin, in 1808. Then Claudius Ash improved on the original porcelain in 1837, whereupon the use of dentures took hold in the U.S. and the business of their manufacture blossomed. It was helped along a great deal by the invention of anaesthetics. Ether was first used successfully by dentist William Morton in 1846, although nitrous oxide, first identified and experimented with in the 1790’s, would prove to be the pain-blocker of choice.
There is actually less call now for dentures per capita, due to improved dental health and services. But improvements in denture components over the years, has been a bonus for crime investigators. As early as 1849, the body of a Dr. George Parkman was identified, solely by his dentures. Because they are generally not soluble in acid, John Haigh was convicted in 1949, for the acid bath murder of a Mrs. Durand Deacon..who had been wearing hers when killed. It has not always been smooth sailing on the upper or lower front. People gradually discovered why their patented pearlies glowed so nicely. Because they contained uranium. Its use for false teeth was patented in 1942. Why, you ask? Because natural teeth fluoresce under “black light”, and so does uranium. It doesn’t necessarily have to contain radiation, either.
The amount of uranium in false teeth in the U.S. was only .05 percent by weight. Still, it bombarded the inside of the mouth with eight times the normal level of background radiation. Its prolonged use was likely a result of the mistaken idea that it improved one’s appearance. This theory went out the window, when it was discovered that some dentures did not fluoresce white under the lights, but red, yellow, and green. The federal exemption for its use was revoked in the mid 80s.
Then in 1999 came the Dentsply monopoly suit. The Justice Dept. accused the company, who sold 70% of the dentures in America, of clamping down too hard on their customers, by not selling them anything, if they also used a competitor’s product.
When we wear dentures, we expect them to remain unseen and uncommented upon. But when you see dentures mentioned, it’s either a technological advance, or something to tickle the funny bone. Japanese dentist Hisashi Kishigami, who cleans a large number of dental prosthesis, started microchipping them. Not only does it ensure they return to their rightful owner, but it has been a valuable resource with Alzheimer’s patients, and also identifying deceased patients. A homing chip might have been more use to the grandfather who accidentally tossed his teeth in the trash, at an ox pull in West Haven, Vermont. When he realised he wasn’t wearing them, they returned to the area, but the trash had been picked up. So a team of volunteers spread about ten cubic yards of yuck at the local waste management facility and retrieved his plate.
Most incidents we see of the “lowers” and the law, are not forensic triumphs. They are the occasionally litigations, like the man in Florida, who swallowed his dentures while undergoing a procedure to exam his colon. Despite complaining of throat pain and inability to swallow, he was sent home. A trip to the Emergency Room the next day for x rays, showed his denture lodged below his larynx. Sometimes they are obscure regulations such as the one in Louisiana which declares that biting someone with your own teeth is simple assault, but biting them with your false teeth is aggravated assault.
Then there are incidents like the Swedish dentist, who got nervous when a patient’s $5,000 bill for individually “planted” teeth went unpaid. The patient came in for a check up, and the dentist unscrewed the teeth, and held them ransom. The boyfriend of a 55 year old woman in Nebraska, also tried holding her canines, for cash. After a night of partying and drinking, her dentures ended up in the toilet, which backed up, and required a plumber. The boyfriend paid the plumber’s $50 bill but held onto the teeth until he was paid back by the woman. She called the police, saying she didn’t have the money, and couldn’t eat without the teeth. Police chewed things over, then sat them down and had her sign an I.O.U. to the boyfriend, who then returned the denture.
It’s enough to make you run out and get a toothbrush, toothpaste, floss, and a check-up.
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