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Heroes of Science Episode 8


 The teeth of the children hide the evil seed of the mothers and fathers

Dental anthropology, dental archaeology, not really an old sort of discipline, I would say one of my favourites is a guy called Robert Bunon. He was the royal tooth puller to the court of one of the Louis, I think the 15th, so he was royal tooth puller to the madames, so he was, like, basically dentist to the rich and famous, celebrity dentist.

He had, however, as a lot of clinicians do, had an interest in research.  His research was at the hospitals for the poor in Paris.  So his day job, if you like, was basically going and tooth pulling to the rich people, but he was going and looking at the teeth of these people who were in these penitent hospitals, generally you would describe them as, let’s say, “fallen women”.  So, yeah, no one’s quite sure why his interest in this was aroused but he was very interested in helping the poor and understanding more about teeth so he wrote this fantastic book which is in lovely sort of crabby print and it became an absolute classic and it’s well known among dental historians, wherein he talks about not only looking at the teeth of prostitutes but the children born to the prostitutes, because a lot of these hospitals were lying-in hospitals and they’d take in orphans and things and he was the first person to really write down in print that there is a specific type of tooth that is associated with having syphilis.  So if you’re born with syphilis, basically what happens is you get a little bit of an infection which affects the way your teeth grow.  If you’ve got syphilis from your mother you’ve got something called congenital syphilis and you can actually see it in the permanent teeth, you get something, a half moon molar, so you’ve got a little notch cut out of the very front part of your teeth – feel free to go home and look at your parents’ teeth now – but this was a sign that people actually recognised – ‘cause syphilis was pretty prevalent – that you had been born with syphilis.  So he wrote in his lovely florid French, ‘Ah yes, the teeth of the children hide the evil seed of the mothers and fathers’ for which I think we can all agree that is an inspirational dental historian!