Of Heavenly Twins, Gold Wires and Wooden Teeth: Dentures and Dentistry in Colonial and Precolonial India

The banal, quotidian aspects of historical experience have always intrigued me and are what drew me to the study of history. Unsurprisingly, this fascination led me into a research rabbit-hole when I writing my book manuscript.

A most fascinating segue about that most mundane of body parts: our teeth.

The birth of the Ashwins

Archaeological evidence underlines the fact that many cultures have consistently attempted to replace teeth for aesthetic or practical purposes. Early artificial teeth were often constructed from whatever materials were available and including bone, ivory, wood, human and animal teeth.[1] The Rig Veda also recorded mentions of artificial eyes and artificial teeth.[2] Prosthetic teeth were mentioned in Vedic and later medieval accounts as well. [3] In the Rig Veda, the divine twin sons of Surya the sun god who were skilled craftsmen and healers, the Ashwins were mentioned as healing the ailing and the blind, crafting a metal prosthetic limb as well as artificial eyes and teeth. Susruta also mentioned the transplantation of teeth; where human teeth were extracted and replanted into the mouths of partially toothless soldiers and civilians.[4] Evidence of artificial teeth also survive for medieval India—in 1194 AD when the king Jai Chandra fell in battle, he was recognized by his false teeth, which were affixed by gold wires.[5]

In Europe at the end of the eighteenth century, dentists usually produced artificial teeth; often of carved bone, ivory or human natural teeth attached to an enameled metal base.[6] The teeth were variously tied, clasped or wired to remaining stumps or to the gums. Springs were also used to fasten artificial teeth to the gums; but many were also simply affixed using the capillary action of the saliva in the mouth. While these dentures were mostly functional, continual concerns about artificial teeth circulated and ranged from the aesthetic (teeth losing their colour and shape to ill-fitting dentures) to the physical (potential damage to the gums from mastication and friction, ‘foetid and offensive’ breath).[7] However they were expensive: a single pair of dentist-produced dentures in London would cost at least twenty pounds .[8] Perhaps the oldest use of ceramics in the human body was in the form of artificial teeth and teeth fillings; with dental ceramics dating back to 1840. Many of the advances in developing dentures occurred in France rather than England, and it was a French national who developed the first porcelain dentures.

The trade in artificial teeth thrived across the continents in the nineteenth century—one newspaper report suggesting that the production of artifiical teeth was the most prolific in the US, where nearly twenty million teeth had been produced in 1889.[9] The same report also commented on the racial differences in artificial teeth as they were produced for different markets: in South America, the teeth had to be ‘almost yellow’, while in Canada the demand was for ‘molars as white as snow’ and in China, a lucrative trade demanded nothing but black teeth. [10]

Existing medical records from the 19th century often racialised dental differences in differences in dental practices and hygiene. The teeth of South Asians were often described as being ‘uniformly large, strong and exceptionally well-developed’. Caries were perceived as a disease of ‘civilised white races’, while Indians lost their teeth owing to excessive calculary deposits or teeth, or the excessive use of certain medicinal plants or charcoal for cleaning the teeth, the constant use of betel leaf and areca nut consumption.[11] 

In South Asia, various classes of dentists made artificial teeth. Artifical teeth, plates and complete or partial dentures were usually produced by surgical dentists and physcians. As with many other branches of healing, both ‘English’ physicians/dentists and indigenous dentists provided dental care.[12] The latter were far more common: very few European dentists practiced in mostly urban South Asia. While doctors working for the colonial state were often trained in the fundamentals of dentistry, the average South Asian would not have had much access to these providers of dental care.. But, indigenous actors were the primary providers of prosthetic teeth; who fashioned their own versions of artificial teeth. For instance, there is some evidence that goldsmiths in South Asia provided dental care, knocking out loose and painful teeth but also binding teeth to the gums with gold and silver wire, and also crafting and inserting artificial teeth made of ivory, bone or conch shell.[13] Borax was widely available in Indian bazaars and used by goldsmiths to manufacture artificial gemstones, was also used extensively by Indian dentists in making plates for artificial teeth.[14]

Screen Shot 2018-06-02 at 9.47.12 AM
Source: Amrita Bazar Patrika, May 23, 1919, 10

Artificial teeth were furnished through dentists, but also through private companies in both the UK and in India.[15] In Calcutta, for instance, Roy Cousin Brothers a surgical and mechanical dentists’ firm proudly proclaimed that their wonderful artificial teeth were ‘Overy (sic) cheap! Very Cheap Defying All Competition’.[16] Advertisements for artificial teeth suggest that dentists played a significant role in producing these prosthetics. Artificial teeth were often advertised simultaneously with dental services. Artificial teeth, ‘manufactured in the ‘latest American style and principle’ were advertised by P. Haldar who had been a native assistant to a surgeon dentist.[17] In Lahore, another dentist Kallan Khan advertised his artificial teeth which were ‘durable, good-looking and as strong as the natural ones’.[18]

Artificial Teeth Ad

By the end of the nineteenth century, some South Asian dentists had purportedly learnt to make complete sets of artificial teeth, comparable to natural teeth, set with springs and ‘all on the European pattern’.[19] 

ABP Dec 30 1922 p.10 Artificial Teeth

One interesting advertisement also suggested that Indian women were participating in this nascent industry. In Calcutta, Kumud Kamini Dasi advertised herself as a ‘High Class Lady Dentist’, and daughter to another ‘well-known surgeon dentist, Dr NC Laha’. Dasi clearly sold artificial teeth, but what is interesting is that this ‘High Class Lady Dentist’ explicitly appealed to women behind the purdah in her advertisement: ‘Best opportunity for Highclass (sic) Pardanashins can be consulted at her residence’. [20] By the twentieth century, dentures mounted on vulcanite were being sold in South Asia and cost a minimum of 35 rupees, as late as 1918. [21] Classifieds for dentures also drew explicit connections to the metropole. Take the classified that was titled ‘American Dentistry’ in bold typeset which advertised the services of R. Ahmed, who mentioned his seven years of experience in America, where he claimed to have been a dental surgeon in the staff of the Forsyth Dental infirmary in Boston.[22]

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Kaiser-I-Hind, April 8, 1894, p.29

As with other ‘Western’ prosthetics, artificial teeth and plates that were constructed by European or European trained dentists were likely to be extremely expensive in South Asia. A member of the Royal Army Medical Corps, HP Johnson, who had worked in India estimated that the average cost of treating, constructing and fitting dentures for a single soldier was around nine pounds.[23] When the dental condition of British non-commissioned soldiers grew worse, doctors recommended invaliding them out of active service and only providing dentures if their character and service met with the approval of their senior officers. Johnson also pointed out that surgical dentists in India were few and far in between; although most assistant surgeons were trained in many aspects of dentistry and were able to stop teeth and make artificial teeth.

Some evidence on the effectiveness of artificial teeth and plates comes from reports of British doctors inspecting dentures among British regiments stationed in India. Artificial teeth and plates also needed regular adjustment and attention after the wearer had begun using them; they were prone to breaking, resulting in secondary changes in the gums and teeth. Some estimated that most artificial dentures were of little practical value—and only half of soldiers fitted with artificial teeth found them of use.[24]

[1] Robert L. Engelmeier, ‘The History and Development of Posterior Denture Teeth—Introduction, Part I’, Journal of Prosthodontics, 12,3(2003):219-226.

[2] Gordon Phillips, Best Foot Forward: Chas. A. Blatchford and Sons Ltd,

[3] Gordon Phillips, Best Foot Forward: Chas. A. Blatchford and Sons Ltd,

[4] PC. Kochhar, History of the Army Dental Corps and Military Dentistry, New Delhi: Lancer Publishers, 2000, p.5.

[5] Helaine Selin. Ed. Encylopedia of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures, New York: Springer, 2013, 268.

[6] Engelmeier, 2003.

[7] Paul Eurialius Juilion, A Practical Essay on the Human Teeth, London : printed for the author, No. 47, Gerrard-Street, Soho; and sold also by J. Robson, New Bond-Street; G. Wilkie, No. 71, St. Paul’s Church-Yard; Richardson and Urquhart, No. 91, Royal Exchange; R. Cruttwell, at Bath; R. Thomas, at Brighthelmstone; J. Sprange, at Tunbridge-Wells; and by S. Silver, at Margate, Booksellers, M.DCC.LXXXI. [1781]. 53-55.

[8] ‘Artificial Teeth’, Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle, January 27, 1850, p.7.

[9] The Pioneer, March 25, 1889.

[10] The Pioneer, March 25, 1889.

[11] JW Egbert, ‘Teeth of Indian Nations’, in Edward C Kirk. Ed. The Dental Cosmos: A Monthly Record of Dental Science, Volumes 42, Issues 1-6, Philadelphia: SS White Dental Manufacturing Company, 1900, 61.

[12] Henry Lovejoy Ambler, Around the World Dentistry, Cleveland: The Judson Printing Company, 1910, 19.

[13] Sakharam Arjun, ‘The Practice of Medicine in Bombay’, Transactions of the Medical and Physical Society of Bombay, p.13.

[14] George Watt, A Dictionary of the Economic Products of India, Volume I, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1889, p.511.

[15] The Madras Mail, June 27, 1873, p.2.

[16] Amrita Bazar Patrika, August 19, 1897,

[17] Amrita Bazar Patrika, November 13, 1900.

[18] Amrita Bazar Patrika, November 13, 1900.

[19] Arjun, ‘The Practice of Medicine in Bombay’, 13.

[20] Amrita Bazar Patrika, January 26, 1899, p.2.

[21] Amrita Bazar Patrika, October 31 1918, p.7

[22] Amrita Bazar Patrika, October 31 1918, p.7

[23] HP Johnson, ‘Should Soldiers be Supplied with Dentures?’, British Dental Journal, 26: 90-91.

[24] R.C. Lewis, ‘Artificial Dentures’, Journal of the Royal Army Medical Corps, Volume 6, London: John Bale, 1906, 460-1.

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