The Smile Stealers' history of dentistry Will Make You Glad you live In The 21st Century

by Kylie Obermeier

We have a strange relationship with dentistry: it is at once considered one of the most significant advancements of modern medicine and a practice that evokes grimaces and traumatic memories and impassioned declarations of hatred upon mere mention. They're not uncalled for: the torture device-esque tools and nasty latex of the dentist’s office are few people’s idea of a fun time. But if you think we have it bad, Richard Barnett’s final volume in his medical history trilogy, The Smile Stealers: The Fine + Foul Art of Dentistry, will wipe the grimace right off your face.

Despite the truly stomach-churning reality of medieval tooth-pulling, The Smile Stealers delves into much more than the horrors of pre-modern dentistry. Barnett explores the “art” in all of its ever-changing complexity, from ancient cures for pesky demonic tooth worms to the Parisian dentistes who crafted the idea of the modern-day dentist to grills and the trendiness of Georgia May Jagger’s gap-toothed smile (you too can look like a perfectly imperfect supermodel with the help of your orthodontist!). And like all of the best histories, it is also about much more than the topic at hand. Barnett reveals how dentistry has been both reflective of and influenced by the social dynamics of the time: of consumerism, of diet, of manners and emotions and beauty. A smile in the 17th century was “bitter” and “mocking,” while by the 18th it was “sweet” and “agreeable.” A very interesting change, but one that also illustrates a potential limitation of the book: Barnett is talking about what a smile meant in France (and probably Europe at large), but it could mean something entirely different in 17th century Japan or Kenya. While it's practically impossible for him to include every culture, it's important to keep in mind that he may be taking a Western-skewed perspective more often than not. 

But, in the best ways, “fine + foul” aptly describes the book itself. Most immediately noticeable is the book's physical beauty—the cover features a Pepto Bismol pink fabric spine and shiny gold accents (the glimmering filling on the cover image's open mouth is perfectly cheeky). Inside, The Smile Stealers' clean, modern design contrasts nicely with the oftentimes gruesome images of dentistry's past. Speaking of which—there are tons of images, 350+ of them, and they are totally captivating and diverse. Medical sketches of terrible maladies live next to photographs of notoriously injury-causing 18th century tooth-pulling devices, Edo period paper scrolls and “the rarest of books and artifacts,” all from the archives of London museum the Wellcome Collection.

While the toothsome eye candy dominates reader’s attention, Barnett’s writing is a worthy competitor. He makes a complicated topic not only easily digestible and colorful, but also brings a wonderfully droll, British sense of humor and timing. The first sentence of chapter one exemplifies his voice: “By comparison with the rest of the animal kingdom, human teeth are, it seems, fairly dull.”

Our teeth may be dull, but the story—in both words and visuals—behind how we have cared for them in different moments is anything but in The Smile Stealers.

Thumbnail image: Metal bridge with replacement teeth, fixed with a metal pin. The original dental bridge was found in Teano, southern Italy. © Wellcome Library, London