Exactly 200 years ago any dentist with a few pounds to spare could buy fresh teeth by the barrel load – very handy for anyone who needed to make dentures. There was a sudden glut on the market as a result of the Battle of Waterloo – the concluding conflict of the Napoleonic wars.Waterloo Day, the 18th June, was a day which would be celebrated in Britain for generations.
But the scene on the battlefield was not something to celebrate: The French emperor, Napoleon, had lost 25,000 men & the Duke of Wellington’s mixed force had suffered 15,000 casualties and Blucher’s Prussians some 8,000. Viewed in the grey light of dawn the battlefield was indeed a dreadful sight. Wellington famously remarked, “Nothing except a battle lost can be half as melancholy as a battle won.”
The visible carnage was itself bad enough. But what was even worse was the appearance of a fresh army of scavengers stripping dead soldiers (and some not so dead) of their valuables; coins, clothes, weapons and their teeth. Before long cartloads of teeth were heading for the Channel ports.
There was already a well-established European export market for teeth. It had been started by one of George Washington’s dentists, John Greenwood, who in 1805 returned from Europe with a barrel load of human teeth from one of Napoleon’s earlier battles. The vast numbers of teeth flooding the London market became known as “Waterloo Teeth”. The belief that the teeth going into one’s dentures had once belonged to a brave young soldier had great commercial appeal. The truth, however, was often quite different. The teeth might just as easily come from a corpse stolen from the local churchyard or from a murderer condemned to be hanged.
This deception was encouraged by money. Thirty years before Waterloo, the price for one ivory tooth supplied by a London dentist, Paul Jullion in Gerrard Street, was ten shillings and sixpence – more than a labourer’s weekly wage. The cost was four times higher for supplying a human tooth: The charge for a complete upper denture made of human teeth was £31 and 10 shillings.
Dentists would pay good money for teeth, no questions asked. They probably indirectly encouraged the body snatching trade, just as much as the surgeons seeking the means with which to practice & teach anatomy.
However, there were already some alternatives to human teeth: The first porcelain teeth had been made in Paris by an Italian dentist in 1808. But even compared to human teeth, they were still expensive; 150 guineas being quoted for a full set of ‘mineral teeth’ in 1845.
Despite the existence of a viable alternative the demand for ‘Waterloo Teeth’ continued well into the second half of the 19th Century. Their price even fell, firstly as a result of the Crimean War in the 1850s. In the following decade supplies increased further, reversing the export trade of 50 years earlier due to the mechanised slaughter of the America’s Civil War. Battles such as Bull Run and Gettysburg led to over half a million deaths, and to millions of American teeth being exported from the USA to Europe.
As regards the dental health of Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington themselves, the Emperor Napoleon died in exile on St Helena in 1821 at the age of 52 still with all but four of his own teeth, and Wellington lived until 1852. But despite the loss of several teeth, the Duke never expressed a wish to acquire a set of Waterloo teeth for himself.