They say ‘It’s an ill wind that doesn’t blow anybody any good’ and even the most macabre episodes in human history have led to benefits for others.
Take false teeth. From the earliest times people have wanted to have missing teeth replaced, either to improve their appearance or to help them chew better. The ancient Etruscans used to join artificial teeth between natural ones with gold wire and from the Middle Ages people sought to replace their teeth with dentures made from carved bone, ivory or even wood.
What do you think these dentures looked like? Well, they filled the empty space in the mouth but apart from that they looked pretty grim!
The answer was to use real teeth but where could they come from? In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries some unfortunates were prepared to have their own teeth extracted to make a little money but there weren’t enough of these to satisfy demand. Enter the grave robbers! These less than ethical individuals didn’t only dig up recent burials to obtain specimens for dissection at the burgeoning number of new medical schools; older cadavers could also be used as a source of raw materials.
The discerning clientele of the time strangely didn’t want the teeth of rotting corpses in their mouths. What was needed was a war! A huge supply of fresh natural teeth from people who suddenly had no further use for them.
Napoleon Bonaparte provided.
The bloody battle of Waterloo left the fields strewn with bodies from both sides just waiting to be plundered; and plundered they were. Following the battle bodies were robbed of clothes, weapons and any valuables including of course their valuable teeth. It is estimated that tens of thousands of human teeth were removed from the battlefield. Indeed, one of today’s leading UK dental supply companies was founded on the strength of the fortune amassed by a private soldier serving at the time of the battle.
The teeth were taken away and set in dental plates to be sold to the rich and famous. The victims however still had the last laugh. Their extracted teeth were just as susceptible to sugar and acid attack as the ones which had already been lost by the new owners and within a few years the costly Waterloo teeth had become rancid and rotten.
It would not be until the production of high quality porcelain and plastic teeth years later that the problem of reliably replacing missing teeth was finally solved. By that time the victims of Waterloo were long forgotten but their legacy and their place in dental history continues to live on.