When Dentures Were Made From the Teeth of Dead Waterloo Soldiers
Here’s a weird slice of history that you can really sink your teeth into. Back in the 19th century, when dentistry was in its infancy and the overconsumption of sugar was causing high levels of tooth decay, dentists found a creative but disgusting way to keep up with the demand for dentures: They used what are now called “Waterloo Teeth.”
After the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, looters, scavengers, and even surviving soldiers began pulling the teeth from dead soldiers left on the battlefield. They’d sort them into sets, and sell them to dentists who would boil them, cut off their roots, and shape them into dentures, according to the BBC.
In an excellent article on Waterloo Teeth and the early history of British dentistry, the BBC explains that, in the early 19th century, dentures made of human teeth were more popular than those made of other materials like porcelain and ivory. Human teeth were apparently considered more comfortable, more realistic, and easier to eat with. Thus, they were in high demand.
It's unclear, however, whether dental patients were aware that their dentures originated from the mouths of dead soldiers. Dental historian Rachel Bairsto told the BBC that while the dentures made from soldiers’ teeth are now known as “Waterloo Teeth," she’s been unable to find the phrase in 19th century texts—implying that patients may not have known where their new chompers came from.
In addition to Waterloo Teeth, Bairsto says many of the teeth used in dentures came from grave robbers. Apparently, most dentists didn’t ask questions about the origins of their tooth supply. After all, it was an era before dentistry developed into a real medical science, when wigmakers, ivory turners, and blacksmiths would do dental work, and you could get your dentures tightened by your local jeweler. As Bairsto puts it, in the early 19th century “Everyone was dabbling in dentistry.”