While dentures are a prosthetic device and obviously can never be as good as the real thing,
consider yourself lucky that you didn’t need dentures in previous centuries.
Did you know that 18th and 19th-century dentures were made from ivory and animal bone and
often included the teeth of executed criminals or exhumed bodies?
While ivory and animal bone were used for many years, it was eventually discovered that
human teeth were a much better match for both fit and function and consequently, human teeth
began to be collected for denture use in a variety of ways including recovering the teeth from
many unfortunate souls who lost their lives in prison, through execution, or through illness.
Of course, the teeth that were used from these sources often brought with them a variety of
infections (including syphilis) that were spread when contaminated tissue from these teeth came
into contact with the new patient’s open wounds in the mouth. As a result, the need to protect
patients from these infections became a real concern and the hunt was on to find young and
Luckily, in 1815, the 51,000 men that died fighting the Battle of Waterloo left behind many sets
of young and healthy teeth. These teeth and any other teeth left behind by dead soldiers
became referred to as “Waterloo Teeth”. Throughout the various wars of the 19th century
including the Crimean and American Civil Wars, “Waterloo Teeth” were recovered by
‘body-snatchers’ who followed armies into battle, removed the teeth from dead soldiers, and
then sold them to dentists and surgeons at a very low cost.
As the 19th century wore on, the upper class began to realize that they were wearing teeth from
lower class and deceased persons, and the stigma associated with this close and gruesome
association resulted in a demand for more suitable materials, such as porcelain.
Today, modern materials such as polymethylmethacrylate acrylic (PPMA) are used to make
denture teeth and are available in heat cured or cold-cured varieties. Commercially produced
acrylic teeth are available in hundreds of shapes and tooth colors and happily, body snatchers
are no longer required!
- Maurine Karagianis
- Deborah MacLeod
- Sheila Lang
- Dominick Carswell
- Kate Dufour