The Tooth-Pullers of the Pont Neuf

Will Self

  • The Smile Stealers: The Fine and Foul Art of Dentistry by Richard Barnett
    Thames and Hudson, 255 pp, £19.95, April 2017, ISBN 978 0 500 51911 0

‘Many dentists,’ my mother once portentously remarked, ‘are thwarted sculptors.’ No doubt she herself had experienced their creative frustration – and painfully so. She was wearing a full set of dentures before I was born but never told me exactly when she’d acquired them. Perhaps she’d been presented with a pair (and some sort of voucher for the requisite extractions) on her 21st birthday, or the occasion of her first marriage. As Richard Barnett points out in his excellent text for The Smile Stealers, it wasn’t uncommon up until the late 1930s for young women to receive just such a benison – the reification, if you like, of the great relief to be obtained once those nerve-infested lumps of rotting dentine were yanked from your mouth. Mother used to play with her dentures at unexpected times – pushing out the lower plate so as to give her the gibbous appearance of an Amerindian with a lip-plate. Since she never admitted to wearing them, this was an astonishing coup de théâtre – mounted for me alone. I suppose I could say her performances left me with a fascination for everything carious, but let’s face it: we all have that.

Dental prostheses from Pierre Fauchard’s ‘Le  Chirurgien-Dentiste’ (1728)
Dental prostheses from Pierre Fauchard’s ‘Le Chirurgien-Dentiste’ (1728)

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