Tuesday, August 6th, 2019

Dentistry in 18th Century Paris

Picture the scene: you are in Paris, sometime in the early 18th century, and your tooth hurts. Really hurts.  In fact, due to poor dental hygiene and the consumption of the sugar which flowed into France from Caribbean colonies, your teeth are decaying. Effective dentistry techniques are still decades away. What are you to do? Well, you are in luck, as on the Pont Neuf Bridge, stood proudly next to the statue of Henry IV of France, you find your saviour. Le Grand Thomas is ready to take away your pain. That might put a smile back on your face – if you don’t mind showing your missing tooth that is.

Le Grand Thomas

Le Grand Thomas, real name Jean Thomas, was also known as le Gros Thomas, literally meaning ‘Fat Thomas’, as apparently his girth was quite ‘extraordinary’. He was one of many ‘tooth-puller showmen’ whom you could seek to relieve you of your aching teeth. Le Grand Thomas however, was a legend. His strength and demeanour made it seem as if he could terrify aching teeth into submission; he could eat and drink as much as four men together and it was said that his ‘barking voice’ carried across the entire city. He even flew a banner which boasted to Paris that his mythical strength was so great that he could pull out not just teeth, but the jaw as well. Fascinatingly, he became a cultural icon in Paris, with ballads and plays depicting his heroic struggle against the unruly tooth. Undoubtedly, there is a satirical nature to Jean Thomas’ depictions in 18th century Parisian culture, yet a tooth-puller obtaining near celebrity status does suggest an increasing concern for dental health.

He, like the other tooth-pullers, learned their trade through trial and error and did not have any medical or science background. During this period in France, finding a physician who would have this medical training was difficult and expensive. Apothecaries and Surgeons were more common but were in competition with a host of other ‘healers’, such as ‘wise women’ and ‘wart-charmers’. The field of dentistry was one that had received little attention in the academic world of the eighteenth century, so even if one could find a physician, the treatment a patient might receive might not have been significantly better than what even Le Grand Thomas could provide. This began to change however with the publication of Pierre Fauchard’s Three volume magnum opus: Le Chirugeon-Dentiste, ou Traité des dents in 1728. With comprehensive and elaborate illustrations, the book contained all of Fauchard’s learning about dentistry, including tooth disease and a wide range of treatments. From this point onwards, a scientific culture of mouthcare began to develop, eventually leading on to the dentistry we have today!

To find out more about the history of the smile listen to our podcast!


By Corey Watson

Further Reading:

Sam Willis & James Daybell, Histories of the Unexpected: How everything has a History

Colin Jones, The Smile Revolution In Eighteenth-Century Paris

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