Compared to other medical occupations, dentistry as a profession is a relative newcomer. Before the late 18th century, the term dentist did not exist although the need was certainly there.


Treatment for toothache was confined to the rudimentary extraction of teeth and it was performed by a range of practitioners such as barber surgeons, blacksmiths and innumerable mountebanks.


Dental treatment was not the pain-free experience we have today yet in a squeamish fascination, during the Dutch golden age of painting, the toothpuller became a popular theme of genre painting.


This curation explores some of the paintings in the collection at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.

10 artworks

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Toothache
Image credit: The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh

Toothache

This mid nineteeth-century oil painting shows a man pressing his hand to his bandaged jaw, suffering unmistakable agony arising from an alveolar abscess.

Treatment for this problem would have involved the extraction of teeth (usually by means of the pelican or the key), and the creation of bone or ivory dentures in crude attempts to fill carious cavities.

Toothache mid-19th C (?)
unknown artist
Oil on canvas
H 30.6 x W 22.6 cm
The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh

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Address to the Toothache
Image credit: The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh

The title of this piece comes from a poem by Robert Burns, lines of which are quoted on a plaque on the frame:

'I throw the wee stools o'er the mickle, While round the fire the giglets keckle, To see me loup, While, raving mad, I wish a heckle Were in their doup!'

The man sat down on the right jumps in pain at his toothache, holding his left hand to his cheek. He has kicked over a stool in his exclamation. Two women on the left glance over, seeming to find the spectacle amusing.

The reactions of onlookers in the dentists' scenes range from curious and bemused to full of worry and downright terror.

Address to the Toothache mid-19th C
unknown artist
Oil on panel
H 6.6 x W 9.1 cm
The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh

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Der Zahnbrecher (The Dentist)
© the copyright holder. Image credit: The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh

The Tooth Breaker

This work copies, in reverse, a print by Jacob Gole (c.1660 - 1737) itself a copy of a print by Both (c.1612-c.1650). Painted in 1929 this was likely a tourist souvenir and shows the enduring popularity of this theme. The artist R. Ottemara has modified the scene by reversing the figures and painting a slightly altered setting.

The patient's distressed wife and child watch hands clasped while the customary group of gawping peasants watch the tooth-drawerer perform the painful operation.

On the wall, a rack of dental instruments is visible. A range of equipment was certainly needed. Dental ‘keys’ were used to lever teeth out or even break them into pieces! In fact, the German title translates literally as 'tooth breaker'!

Der Zahnbrecher (The Dentist) 1929
R. Ottemara and Andries Dirksz. Both (1611/1612–1641) (copy after) and Jacob Gole (1660–c.1747) (copy after)
Oil on panel
H 25.8 x W 19.5 cm
The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh

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The Blacksmith Dentist
Image credit: The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh

This Bronze spelter casting from the late nineteenth century shows a blacksmith about to extract a tooth from a man seated on a roughly hewn wooden block.

The artist demonstrates a profound knowledge of anatomy and attention to detail. Through this, he is able to express the operator's determined demeanour and the patient's agony with legs kicking and arms fighting back to show the force involved.

The instrument used for extraction is of a very unusual design resembling a billhook with a wooden handle, similar to that of a dental key. The instruments were often devised by the operator.

The Blacksmith Dentist 1875
Raimondo Pereda (1840–1915)
Spelter casting
H 45 x W 29 x D 46 cm
The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh

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The Country Tooth Drawer
Image credit: The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh

The Country Tooth Drawerer

This oil painting on panel is after a drawing by Cornelis Pietersz Bega, a Netherlands painter and etcher of the school of Adriaen van Ostade.

A woman, his wife is seated next to a basket of rolls with their children. The artist has included on the right side another small boy not originally Bega's work.

The operator is about to extract a mandibular left tooth. Sitting by the window at least allows the operator to see what they are doing. The patient is reaching into his coat to pull out a weighty purse of coins.

The Country Tooth Drawer late 18th C
Cornelis Pietersz. Bega (1631/1632–1664) (after)
Oil on panel
H 31.1 x W 23.1 cm
The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh

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The Tooth Drawer
Image credit: The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh

This small oil painting depicts a rural dentist in Jaen, Spain. The central figure holds a pair of forceps and is about to extract a tooth from a youth seated in the chair. The clothing is in the Majo style which suggests that painting hails from the late eighteenth to early nineteenth century.

The young boy patiently awaits the operation in a busy room while a woman, possibly his mother talks with the operator.

With musicians and chickens, a caged bird and a cat all in the room it won't be a peaceful experience.

The Tooth Drawer mid-19th C
unknown artist
Oil on canvas
H 25.1 x W 33 cm
The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh

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The Dentist
Image credit: The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh

The blacksmith is extracting the tooth with a pair of oversized forceps of his own construction. In the interior of an eighteenth-century smithy, highlighted by the presence of a forge and anvil. The rolled-up sleeve suggests the strenuous work of this gleeful-looking surgeon.

The woman watching here appears anything but concerned and along with the side eye of the blacksmith we might think perhaps they are sharing a joke.

In the background, there hangs an upside-down horseshoe, a sign once again that we are in a blacksmith but hanging upside down does it also symbolise bad luck for this poor patient?

The Dentist
John Harris (active 1763–1769) (copy after)
Oil on panel
H 30.7 x W 24.2 cm
The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh

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Der Zahnarzt (The Dentist)
Image credit: The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh

Montebanks and Showmen

Dentists in these images often seem to have fabulous hats. This is an early copy of David Tenier's Der Zahnarzt from c.1660.

Teniers the younger (1610-1690) was a Flemish painter and the most important member of a family of Antwerp artists. His output was huge and varied (about 2,000 pictures have been attributed to him). Teniers was best known for his small genre paintings depicting peasant life. The dentist was a particularly common subject for him.

Der Zahnarzt (The Dentist) c.1660
David Teniers II (1610–1690) (after)
Oil on canvas
H 33.2 x W 28.1 cm
The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh

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Der Zahnbrecher (The Dentist)
Image credit: The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh

From the late 18th Century, this painting after David Teniers (the younger) shows a montebank - a historical term for a quack surgeon, garbed in fantastic style, who plied his trade at the marketplaces and fairs

He triumphantly waves the extracted molar towards the audience while the young man whose tooth he has just extracted clutches his jaw in pain.

There are several instruments on display including, an hourglass still running which suggests this particular individual's skill was the speed of extraction. The table of jars, suggests he might also be selling some ointments with claims to cure toothache.

Der Zahnbrecher (The Dentist) late 18th C (?)
David Teniers II (1610–1690) (after)
Oil on white metal
H 19.3 x W 15.8 cm
The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh

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Der Zahnarzt (The Dentist)
Image credit: The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh

Here our operator, in another fabulous fur hat and gold earing flourishing a freshly pulled tooth is trying to show some credentials.

In the background of this image you can see a taxidermy crocodile suspended from the ceiling. A rather unusual sight in the dentist's office today, in the 19th Century a taxidermy croc was supposed to link to the long association with crocodiles and alligators as symbols of wisdom and medical knowledge as well as highlight your worldly connections.

A seal and a fancy box of tools also try to convince the viewer of their knowledge.

Der Zahnarzt (The Dentist) late 18th C (?)
Gerrit Dou (1613–1675) (after)
Oil on copper
H 22 x W 18 cm
The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh