That time dentures were made from dead soldiers' teeth

The first casualty of a U.S. troop’s military service is usually his wisdom teeth. It’s as if the U.S. military secretly runs on some kind of wisdom tooth-based fuel.

There are many supposed reasons for the mass extraction of otherwise normal wisdom teeth, but we can all be glad they don’t get sold into, say, dentures or something.

soldiers' teeth

“Let’s go! I got a guy who needs these on the next flight out.”

But travel back in time a couple hundred years and they certainly could have.

By 1815, the British Empire’s acquisition of a steady source of sugar coming from its Caribbean colonies created an embarrassing source of tooth decay – and a huge market for dentures.

Both were only for the wealthy.

In the earliest days of oral care on the British Isles, “everyone dabbled in dentistry,” according to a BBC interview with the British Dental Association. And replacement teeth were made from a variety of material, including ivory and porcelain — each with its own set of pros and cons.

soldiers' teeth

Wooden tooth jokes are as funny as actual wooden teeth.

The best dentures, however, used real extracted teeth. As the demand for dentures grew, so did the demand for ones made with real teeth. To get a full set of real teeth, someone had to lose a full set of real teeth, and who would give up their teeth?

Someone who doesn’t need them anymore, of course.

Good thing the British just finished fighting a huge war with Napoleonic France. The recent Battle of Waterloo gave British dentists a huge source of teeth whose owners didn’t need them anymore.

soldiers' teeth

Dead people. I mean dead people. Specifically soldiers.

And that’s just what happened.

Everyone, according to the British Dental Association Museum — from locals to other troops to scavengers — would have been pulling dead soldiers’ teeth out for sale back home. The demand was that great.

soldiers' teeth

(British Dental Association Museum photo)

They wouldn’t take all of the teeth. Molars would be left in place because they were too hard to take out and difficult to turn onto dentures.

Once back in Britain, the “Waterloo Teeth” (as they came to be called) were sold at a price that couldn’t be beat, considering the demand for real teeth and the scarcity of them. It provided those battlefield scavengers with plenty of incentive to grab a pair of pliers and head out to Waterloo.

soldiers' teeth

“Waterloo Teeth” on display as they would be sold in 1815. (British Dental Association Museum)

The recipients had no idea their new dentures came from the dead men on the battlefield of France. All they knew is that they could now eat all the boiled food the British Isles could muster. Which is a lot.

“Waterloo Teeth” would come to be known as any kind of tooth that was extracted from dead soldiers on battlefields for sale for use in dentures. This also happened during the American Civil War and the Crimean War.