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Transplanting of teeth

Transplanting of teeth, 1787

Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827)
Engraving hand coloured on paper, 1787

This is one of Rowlandson’s best-known works with a dental subject. The transplanting of teeth was particularly popular at the end of the eighteenth century.

Poor people were paid to have their healthy teeth removed for immediate placement into the waiting mouths of wealthy, older patients whose own teeth had decayed and been extracted. The treatment went out of fashion as it had several disadvantages. Long term success was extremely rare, and furthermore syphilis could be transmitted with the transplanted tooth.

The central scene shows a fashionably attired dentist removing a tooth from a poor chimney-sweep with a tooth key (note the forceps on the floor, used to shake the tooth lose prior to extraction).

An aristocratic lady, who is to receive the tooth, watches with apprehension. She has to resort to her smelling salts to overcome the smell of the poor person, seated next to her. On the right, one of the dentist’s assistants is examining the next patient, an elegantly dressed young lady with clenched hands, as she anticipates her forthcoming extraction.

In the rear, between these two groups is a dandy examining his newly transplanted tooth in a mirror. On the extreme left, two poor sellers are leaving the room; one is holding his hand to his painful jaw while the other is disdainfully examining the miserly payment she has received for her tooth.

On the notice on the door is the statement: "Most money given for live teeth". Teeth from the dead were also transplanted. The social comment contained in this caricature is directed at the abuse of the poor, not at the transplanting procedure. To underline the satire the rich are in bright colours and the poor are drab and dull.​