Get ready to sink your teeth into a little-known fact about the infamous Battle of Waterloo! While many of us have heard of this bloody European battle that sent Napoleon Bonaparte packing, what you might not know is that the thousands of soldiers who fell in battle became an unexpected goldmine for dentists. The pearly whites of fallen soldiers proved to be a valuable source of teeth for creating dentures, which came to be known as “ Waterloo Teeth .”
In the 19th century, dentistry was still a primitive and largely undeveloped branch of medicine. People from all classes suffered from tooth decay , prompting inventive solutions for replacing lost teeth. One early approach was to use ivory and wire springs, but this method was costly, ineffective, and prone to decay, resulting in unattractive loose teeth, discomfort and deplorably bad breath.
In a desperate attempt to find a better solution, dentists began to use human teeth to create dentures. The main issue, for obvious reasons, was finding volunteers willing to part with their gnashers. In a gruesome turn of events, dentists tried to satisfy growing denture demand by turning to the services of black-market body snatchers.
So-called Resurrectionists – a group of unscrupulous individuals – engaged in a despicable practice of robbing corpses of their teeth under the cover of darkness. While some of their loot came from recently executed convicts, more often than not, it was freshly buried civilians that fell victim to these grave robbers . As the demand for dentures made from real human teeth grew, so did the concerns of customers about the ethical implications of their purchase. In response, dentists began seeking alternative sources for their dentures, and they found it in an unlikely place: the battlefield.
Painting of the Royal Scots Greys at the Battle of Waterloo, by Elizabeth Thompson. ( Public domain )
This coincided with what has gone down in history as one of the bloodiest wars on record. The Battle of Waterloo , fought on June 18, 1815, was the culmination of the Hundred Days War , where Napoleon’s French army faced a coalition of forces led by the Duke of Wellington from Britain and Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher from Prussia. The number of casualties is usually estimated at around 47,000, made up of mostly young and healthy men.
While most mourned the tragic events, some individuals saw an opportunity to profit. Soon teeth scavengers began looting the theater of war, which took place near the town of Waterloo in modern-day Belgium, removing the teeth of the fallen heroes. Many of these were shipped back to England in barrels, to be sorted and boiled. They were then assembled into sets of false dentures. Unbeknownst to most, the market was soon flooded with what were later dubbed “Waterloo teeth.”
Top image: Upper ivory denture with human teeth. Source: Science Museum, London / CC BY 4.0
By Cecilia Bogaard
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