Come on a guided tour of Australia’s oldest and most comprehensive museum of dentistry. By Cassy Polimeni
The evolution of dentistry—from spells to drive away disease-causing spirits to a recognised profession at the cutting edge of technology—is characterised by colourful myths and misconceptions and a few grisly chapters. The Henry Forman Atkinson Dental Museum brings that history to life, with a collection that is unparalleled in Australia, consisting of 3500 objects, photographs and documents dating from the early 1700s.
Located inside the linoleum corridors of the Melbourne Dental School, the single-room museum gives visitors an insight into the evolution of dental care. Its name is a tribute to a former dean of the faculty, Professor Emeritus Henry Forman Atkinson, MBE. Although officially retired in 1978, Professor Atkinson continued as curator of the museum until just before his death in January 2016, aged 103.
“The museum’s origins date back to the formation of the Odontological Society in 1884 which led to the establishment of professional education, but [Professor Atkinson] is the person who ensured that the life of the museum continued,” says current curator, Dr Jacqueline Healy. “It’s important to not take what we have for granted, because it’s hard won. It always takes pioneers to take that first step into a new arena.”
From saints to sedatives
Dr Healy took over as curator in 2015 and is also editor of It’s A Gas!, an illustrated history of dentistry in cartoons from the 16th century to today, exploring themes of fear, relief, pain and vanity.
Photographs and a timeline that runs like a ribbon around the room offer a wealth of information but it’s hard to go past Dr Healy’s encyclopedic knowledge of all things dental: from ancient Egyptian potions created to stop decay-causing worms gnawing at your teeth to the myth of Apollonia, patron saint of dentists, who had her teeth knocked out as a form of torture.
The centrepiece of the exhibition is a replica 19th century dental surgery, complete with a pedal drill, velvet dental chair, and a range of instruments with bone handles used mainly for extraction purposes.
“People’s faces were being severely damaged by new artillery, and dentists knew how the jaw worked in intimate detail; they learned how to rebuild faces.”—Dr Jacqueline Healy, curator, The Henry Forman Atkinson Dental Museum
The tableau encapsulates a simpler time in dentistry, before a more sophisticated understanding of disease processes and pain management improved quality of life—and the health of our teeth.
“In the middle of the 19th century there were two pivotal discoveries—germ theory and anaesthetics,” Dr Healy explains. “Germ theory put an end to velvet and bone with their porous, non-sterile surfaces, but cocaine and arsenic persisted as pain relief until the early 20th century, while game-changing nitrous oxide went from an ingredient at ‘laughing gas parties’ for the British upper classes in 1799 to dental anaesthetic in 1844, when American dentist Horace Wells tested it on himself during an extraction.”
An ounce of prevention
“The great change in dentistry was moving from extraction to prevention,” Dr Healy says. “Now [dentists] do everything in their power to make sure we keep our original teeth, but I think the iconography of extraction is why people fear the dentist.”
It was once common practice for the families of young brides-to-be to pay for their daughter’s teeth to be extracted and replaced with dentures to remove any concerns about the cost of dental care. Historically, dentures were only available to the wealthy, with the most coveted made from human teeth. Among the museum’s more macabre exhibits are what were known as Waterloo or Crimean teeth “because those battles were a boon for dentists”.
Fortunately, there were alternatives including marble, porcelain and vulcanite dentures (made from India rubber), all of which are also on display.
Dr Healy explains, “The dentist was like a jewel maker, and used enamel shading kits to create the exact shade to match surrounding teeth,” from white, to grey, blue or ‘Italian brown’.
Another exhibit is a George Washington-style denture, with space for his one working tooth and wire springs that held everything else in place. “When Grandpa in The Simpsons loses his dentures and they go flying we see that as slapstick comedy,” Dr Healy says. “But it goes back to an earlier style of dentistry when springs allowed for chewing, so flying dentures were a very real problem!”
Coming of age
World War I was a turning point for dentistry. In 1914, it was considered outside the realms of orthodox medicine and dentists were not enlisted as specialists, but in Gallipoli ulcerative gingivitis (or trench mouth) was commonplace, preventing sufferers from eating their hard army rations. The upshot was that dentists—out of necessity—eventually became part of the medical corp. as documented through photographs and newspaper clippings.
“Now [dentists] do everything in their power to make sure we keep our original teeth, but I think the iconography of extraction is why people fear the dentist.”—Dr Jacqueline Healy, curator, The Henry Forman Atkinson Dental Museum
Photographs, clippings and medical records also tell the story of Queen Mary’s Hospital in Sidcup, London, where pioneering techniques in plastic surgery were developed to meet other, more devastating challenges created by trench warfare. “People’s faces were being severely damaged by new artillery, and dentists knew how the jaw worked in intimate detail; they learned how to rebuild faces,” Dr Healy says. “Things got better as the war progressed because, unfortunately, they had plenty of practice.”
Women in dentistry
Australia’s first female graduate from the then-named Australian College of Dentistry was Dr Fannie Gray in 1907. Images of Dr Gray at work, and other pioneering female members of the Melbourne Dental Student Society form part of the exhibition.
“There’s a great cartoon from Punch [magazine] in the 1870s that shows a woman dentist standing beside a patient clutching her wrist and saying, ‘It’s nearly out, I just need to rest for a bit,’” Dr Healy recalls. “It’s the same argument that was used for the first woman jockey to win the Melbourne Cup—she was told she wasn’t strong enough.
“Women had to fight to get into dentistry, as they had to fight to get into medicine, and the early women dentists often had a family connection. Getting formally qualified was a bigger battle.”
Then there’s the museum’s collection of antique paraphernalia: a tortoiseshell toothpick designed to hang around your neck, vintage toothpaste containers (long since superseded by the more hygienic tube), and 19th century wax dental floss. “Even the humble toothbrush needed changes,” Dr Healy notes. “Early brushes had large heads made out of boar bristles so they were hard to use. Nylon bristles were a great innovation because they’re softer and don’t damage your gums, and smaller so you can clean things properly.
“Everything we take for granted has had a journey to get there, and it might have a further journey to go yet.”