Book review: ‘The Smile Stealers’ by Richard Barnett

A fascinating history of dental technology that the squeamish should probably approach with caution.

One could be forgiven for thinking that dentistry, apart from being a medical science and one of the main purveyors of human suffering and pain through the ages, is on the way to becoming a literary genre in its own right. This is the second book on teeth and dentistry I’ve reviewed this summer, following in the wake of ‘Evolution’s Bite’ by Peter S. Ungar.

Or maybe it is yours truly, who recently experienced a kind of ‘dental Dignitas’, having had my few remaining teeth replaced with ceramic implants (at a glorious Budapest dental clinic whose name – Smile Savers – curiously echoes and challenges the title of this book) and therefore becoming much more aware of the subject’s ever growing ubiquity?

‘The Smile Stealers: The Fine and Foul Art of Dentistry’ by Richard Barnett (Thames & Hudson, £19.95; ISBN: 9780500519110), I have to admit, stands out among other ‘dental’ publications both in quality and in quantity. I can’t refrain from comparing it to the two beautiful rows of my own shiny dental implants as opposed to the uneven and ramshackle hedges of my now-defunct natural incisors and molars.

In sheer number and quality of illustrations: photos, reproductions, cartoons, old adverts and rather gruesome drawings of surgical tools – all from the seemingly inexhaustible Wellcome Trust Collection archives – it can even pass for a glossy coffee-table album; brilliant for leisurely perusing in different posh waiting rooms, except, perhaps, for a dentist’s reception.

This book, which traces the tempestuous history of dentistry from the early days, when tooth pulling was pretty much the only method of dental treatment and routinely carried out by barbers and fairground entertainers, to the modern times of implants and cosmetic surgery, can also be of interest to E&T readers (both toothless and ‘toothful’, forgive my neologism) due to its heavy emphasis on technology. Many (perhaps even a tad too many) of its pages are occupied by scary old drawings of dental forceps, dynamos, automatic timing appliances, mouth lamps, dental engines, much-dreaded drills and so on. If I were the book’s publisher, I would definitely preclude those pages with a printed warning of the type: “Those with feeble teeth and hearts, please look away now.” Looking at them could make some dental sufferers about to undergo treatment or surgery change their minds pronto.

It’s also resplendent with little-known and rather fascinating dental facts. For instance, until reading it, I did not know that the very first dentures in history were made by the Etruscans in the seventh century BC – a fact that, for some reason, made me treasure my new porcelain implants even more.

What I particularly like about ‘The Smile Stealers’ is its often irreverent, tongue-in-cheek (in the true sense) tone, evident for example in the title of Chapter 5 – ‘A New Era of Tooth-Pulling’.

To quote Barnett: “Possession of a functional, pain-free mouth is practical necessity, but it is also central to our sense of self.” I cannot agree more, for my own sense of self has grown up considerably after my recent Smile Savers experience. And I am not alone. Teeth have always inspired metaphors and similes. Among many examples in modern English literature, they have been compared by imaginative writers to: “headstones under a winter moon”, cashews, discoloured choirboys, row of alabaster Britannicas and  even unregistered weapons.

So, if I were this book’s editor, I would only make one major alteration and change its title from ‘The Smile Stealers’ to ‘The Smile Savers’, because that is what the best of modern dentists and dental surgeons strive to be.

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