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1950s mouthpiece from circus acrobat Penny
1950s mouthpiece from circus acrobat Penny "Iron Jaw" Wilson.

Museum of Dentistry: Washington's Choppers

Field review by the editors.

Baltimore, Maryland

We visited the Museum of Dentistry for the same reason that we've visited museums of torture -- to see the educational side of pain. That isn't the Dental Museum's intent, of course. Dentists see their museum as a wonderful history of oral health, a triumph of science over ignorance, technology over misery.

No matter how hard it tries, however, there's no way to make a gaping, toothy mouth look anything but disturbing.

There are plenty of gaping mouths to see in the Museum of Dentistry, and a fair number of human skulls and nasty pieces of hardware. Tooth repair is not pretty.

Teeth and dentures of George Washington.
Teeth and dentures of George Washington.

The "Development of Drills" and "Evolution of Extraction Instruments" exhibits -- with pliers-like devices named "The Claw" and lots of emphasis on "torque" -- make you realize just how good we have it in the 21st century. Maybe that was the dentists' intent as well.

Human teeth make odd exhibits. A 1950s mouthpiece from circus acrobat Penny "Iron Jaw" Wilson is displayed, with her bite marks and lipstick stains still intact.

Wall-mounted heads illustrate how certain people have had all of their teeth cosmetically knocked out or filed into dagger points. Pushing a button sets in motion "Mighty Mouth," a mechanical jaw that wear-tests new dental materials, "the equivalent of many years of chewing in the space of a few weeks," according to its sign.

Video Mouth.

You want history? Ponder the French medical sculptures of grisly "toothworms" gnawing teeth from within. Toothworms were blamed for dental pain for thousands of years, according to the exhibit, until someone noticed that a supposed toothworm was in fact "a worm that had entered the victim's mouth in the cheese she had eaten."

In the dental products display, a "Tooth Jukebox" allows you to watch old Pepsodent and Ultra Brite TV commercials -- inside a gaping, toothy mouth. Surrounding it are hundreds of years of packaged toothpastes, toothpicks, and mouthwashes exhibited in frames shaped like giant molars. "Ammoniated tooth powders," the exhibit explains, "are the descendants of urine mouthwash. Pierre Fauchard, the Father of Dentistry, advised people to use their urine."

The only known photograph of "Doc" Holliday holding his dental tools is exhibited with pride, as are the tiny dentures of Mrs. Tom Thumb, and a regal set of picks and tooth scrapers used on Queen Victoria by her personal dentist (who was later knighted). "Images of Victoria showing her teeth are rare," the exhibit states, although she apparently had a healthy set of choppers.

Not so George Washington, who only had one tooth left when he became President -- a tooth that later fell out and was worn as jewelry by his dentist (and is now part of the museum's collection). Four of GW's spring-loaded dentures are displayed, and the exhibit stresses that none of them are made of wood. The President's dentures instead were fitted with real teeth -- taken from hippos, cows, and other people.

Nightmare dentist's office.

"What about my teeth?" you ask, and the museum obligingly provides some answers. There's "The Smile Experience," a multi-media exhibit that allows you to take a snapshot of your mouth (frightening) and then plugs cosmetic dentistry. "Mass Disasters" explains that your teeth will identify your corpse after a plane crash. "Growing Teeth: Is It Possible?" asks a question that cannot be answered (yet), while "Saliva: A Remarkable Fluid" features a big beaker filled with gooey liquid, and notes that the average person makes enough spit every day to fill a soda bottle.

Displays such as "Ingenuity of American Dentists" and "Fluoridation: Public Health Triumph" leave little room for debate in the Museum of Dentistry, but we'd be ungrateful to fault their chest-thumping tone. Unless you want to return to the days of urine mouthwash and The Claw -- and have your teeth fall out and end up in some future President's dentures -- we reckon that the dentists have earned the right to a little bragging.

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Museum of Dentistry: Washington's Choppers

Dr. Samuel D Harris National Museum of Dentistry

31 S. Greene St., Baltimore, MD
Dr. Samuel D Harris National Museum of Dentistry. From I-95, take Rt. 395 (downtown Baltimore) and exit onto Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., staying in the right lane. At the fourth light, turn right (east) onto Baltimore St., then at the first light turn right (south) onto Greene St. The Museum will be toward the end of the block, on the left (east) side, just north of Lombard St.
M-F 9-3 (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Adults $7.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

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