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Drills, dentures and dentistry : An oral history.

Bourke, Joanna
  • Videos

About this work


A history of dental health presented by Dr Joanna Burke, a historian on pain. Bourke believes that the past has cast a long shadow over our fears in the dentist's chair. Bourke explores the relationship between barbering and dentistry (the Medieval barber-surgeon) with the historian Damien Walmsley. The tools of the trade are demonstrated. At the Royal Society, a first edition of John Hunter's book 'The Natural History of the Human Tooth' changed dentistry. Wendy Moore discusses this important work which became the starting point for dentistry as a discipline. Hunter also popularised the practice of the transplantation of teeth from the living and then later the dead. The British Dental Association have one of the largest collections of false teeth; they have an extraordinary collection of teeth from 1815 culled from dead Battle of Waterloo soldiers' mouths (as curated by Rachel Bairsto). Porcelain teeth were superceded by the introduction of Vulcanite. William Addis is attributed as the creater of the toothbrush. Originally pig bristles were used. A company in the UK is still engaged in this activity and Burke has a go at creating one. In 1955, the first commercial shown on British TV was for Gibbs SR toothpaste. Dr Martin Ashley from Manchester University Hospital has researched the different methods people used to clean the teeth; ground oyster shells, soot and brick dirt were all used. In the Museum of London, Mike Henderson, archeologist, has been studying the teeth of Londoners, inevitably our diet has had a terrible impact on the health of our teeth; the sugar trade in particular. Professor Tim Watson outlines the difficulties of dealing with cavities in the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century. Burke once again endeavours to do this on models. A treadle drill is demonstrated. Nitrous-oxide was the earliest anaesthetic in use (Burke tests some and pricks herself with a needle to demonstrate its pain killing properties). Dr Stephanie Snow is an expert on anaesthesia; chloroform and ether were in use, not without significant complications such as death. Cocoa (cocaine) was discovered to have anaesthetic qualities which could be used as a local anaesthetic. A clip from Charlie Chaplin's 'The Dentist' in 1914 demonstrates the fear felt by people. During WWI General Haig on the Western Front had tooth ache and discovered that there were no dentists in uniform. Dentists were recruited and were also involved in reconstructive plastic surgery. Kristen Hussey explains the importance of dentists in recreating the soldiers' faces. During WWII, the RAF observed that toothache was a problem at high altitudes. A team of female dental hygientsts were trained. Post WWII, in 1948 and the introduction of the Welfare State, many of the problems of access to dental health care were tackled. The costs rapidly increased and costs were introduced in the 1950s. Fluoride in water and in toothpaste has improved the health of our teeth.


UK : Raw Television, 2015.

Physical description

1 videocassette (DVD) (8 min.) : sound, colour, PAL.


Originally broadcasted on BBC4 on 30 March, 2015.
Uses archive clips from the Wellcome Library.
There is supporting material held in the department.

Creator/production credits

Produced, edited and directed by James Gray. Raw Television for BBC.
Joanne Bourke

Copyright note

Raw Television



  • English

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