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A Visit to the Dentist in Artwork

As well as medical instruments and records, the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh also has an impressive collection of art. Among them, there is an interesting selection of images of tooth-pulling scenes that cover the history of dentistry in the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries.

Compared to other medical occupations, dentistry as a profession is a relative newcomer. Before the late 18th century, the term dentist did not exist although that did not mean people weren't getting dental treatment. Often the solution to toothache and rotten teeth was confined to the rudimentary extraction of teeth and it was performed by a range of practitioners such as barber surgeons, blacksmiths and innumerable mountebanks.

Der Zahnbrecher (the tooth breaker)

This work copies, in reverse, a print by Jacob Gole (c.1660 - 1737) itself a copy of a print by Both (c.1612-c.1650). Painted in 1929 this was likely a tourist souvenir and shows the enduring popularity of this theme nearly 300 years after the original. The artist R. Ottemara has modified the scene by reversing the figures and painting a slightly altered setting.

The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh HC.J.16.X.28

The patient's distressed wife and child watch hands clasped while the customary group of gawping peasants oversea the tooth-drawerer performing the painful operation. The patient leans backwards at an awkward angle while the fancy-hatted operator clamps his head and roots around in his mouth. The patient's left-hand clutches at a drawstring purse of coins signalling he is paying for the pleasure of this examination. Overall it is a very different experience from the examination chair at the NHS dentist's practice today.


On the back wall hangs a rack with a range of metal instruments on it. Many of the tools used would have been self-devised. Dental 'keys' were used to lever teeth out of the mouth or even break them into pieces! In fact, the German title of this piece literally translates as ' the tooth breaker'.


Quack or Qualified?

Gerrit Dou (1613-1675) was a Dutch Golden Age painter and one of the most famous Dutch painters until the 19th Century. He was known for genre scenes which means paintings of daily life. Many of these take place through the framing of a window with the curtains drawn, which gives the sense that you are looking in on this ordinary scene. The dentist scene is a common reproduction and typically features a proud or overzealous-looking surgeon with a poor patient


The collection at RCSE included 'Der Zahnarzt (the Dentist)' by an unknown artist but is a copy after Gerrit Dou (1613-1675) with the background altered. Painted on a copper plate this piece was probably made by transferring a lithograph print onto the metal and then painting over the top in oils. These inexpensive copies were popular souvenirs at European tourist destinations during the 18th and Early 19th Centuries.

The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh HC.J.16.X.34

Through the illusionistic frame of a large window, we see a dentist in a red fur cap, proudly displaying the tooth he has just pulled from his patient. The patient, a young boy, grimaces in pain, holding onto his wide-brimmed hat. A copper basin, bottle, and other medical tools rest on the broad windowsill.


A stuffed crocodile, a typical seventeenth-century emblem of science, is suspended from the ceiling. Crocodiles and alligators were traditionally a symbol of wisdom and learning, therefore giving patients the reassurance of medical knowledge. The seal hanging over the window ledge also gives a claim to authority.


However, the fancy fur hat and earring as well as the showmanship of presenting the tooth to the viewer suggests that this is a mountebank - a historical term for a quack surgeon, garbed in fantastic style, who plied his trade at the marketplaces and fairs.


The patient dribbles blood onto his hat rather than into the basin provided for the purpose. The fact the operator has failed to notice and has not pushed the bowl over suggests he is far more interested in the audience than his patient's care.



Check out this ArtUK curation to see more dental artwork in the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh's collection.

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