Implanting a human tooth into a rooster's comb was just the beginning

Implanting a human tooth into a rooster's comb was just the beginning

The nice thing about teaching is that you learn a lot from it yourself. Last week I gave a lecture in Amsterdam on the use of bodies and body parts in medicine. In three hours, we went from Andreas Vesalius's anatomical atlas from 1543 to the Dutch Donor Code of 2020. In preparation, I had the students read an article by British historian Ruth Richardson. The article was new to me too: I had actually downloaded the PDF in 2010, but it seemed like I had something more important to do over the past 14 years. But now that I described the text, I had to do it.

I rated Richardson highly, and it did not disappoint. The text achieved exactly what I had hoped for: connecting historical topics to contemporary debates in an accessible way. In the process, I learned a new story about the 18th century British anatomist John Hunter. I knew Hunter: I had come across him a lot in medical history. It is the namesake of the Hunterian Museum in London. I knew Hunter had made thousands of anatomical specimens. I knew that when he obtained cadavers for his dissections, he cared little for laws, practical concerns, or grief. I knew he had done research on hermaphroditic calves.

Oral care for two hundred years

But what I didn't know until last week was that he was involved in dental implants. Oral care at the end of the 18th century was not what it is today, which meant that many people were losing their teeth. There were no good fake teeth yet. So Hunter tried dental implants.

He had previously performed tissue transplants on roosters. One thing led to another, a human tooth was placed in the Mohawk, and Hunter then began performing human-to-human dental implants. It was easy to find people with empty spaces in their mouths. But where did you find the teeth to fill those spaces?

Richardson suspects Hunter started with teeth from recently deceased people, but she reveals he quickly turned to living donors. children. Because Hunter believed dental implants should last for years, it was best for them to be as small as possible.

Now you might still be hoping that Hunter is after the baby's newly fallen teeth, but no. They should be permanent teeth, but as small as possible and freshly extracted. Ideally, Hunter wrote, a dentist would have several children willing to extract a tooth during the implantation process: If the first tooth doesn't fit, he or she can immediately move on to the next tooth.

Children were paid for their teeth. It is the kind of transaction that some neoliberal administrators like to call “voluntary,” but it has nothing to do with free choice. The children who sold their teeth were very poor, and the adults who got their teeth were very rich.

What money can do

Ultimately, that wealth couldn't fill the gaps in their mouths: the implanted teeth became infected (“rejection symptoms,” as we now call them), and they were all eventually lost again. The procedure's popularity declined, especially when a story emerged about a young woman who also received a syphilis implant along with one of her teeth.

The dentists stopped working, and Hunter also focused on other things, and no one talked about them anymore. But children who had their teeth sold could no longer chew properly and walked with sunken faces for the rest of their lives.

We have a waiting list for donor organs in the Netherlands. Some people occasionally suggest that financial compensation for organ donation could help shorten the waiting list.

I told the Amsterdam students that you cannot extend history individually into the present. Perfect parallels do not exist.

But anyone willing to pay for organs would do well to read about Hunter and the children whose teeth he destroyed.

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