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US Museum Shows History of Teeth and Dentist Tools


Exploring the History of Teeth at Baltimore's Dentistry Museum
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Exploring the History of Teeth at Baltimore's Dentistry Museum

US Museum Shows History of Teeth and Dentist Tools
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Most people do not look forward to going to the dentist. But they might actually enjoy visiting an American museum that explores the history of teeth and dentistry.

The Dr. Samuel D. Harris National Museum of Dentistry is at the University of Maryland in Baltimore. It was the world’s first college to train dentists. A man named G.V. Black was one of the founders of modern U.S. dentistry in the 1800s.

Visitors to the museum can look at a reproduction of Black’s dentist office. When he treated patients, he had no electricity for light. So his office, like many others, had large windows. Chairs for patients often faced south to help dentists work by sunlight.

A recreation of a typical early dentist office is shown at the Dr. Samuel D. Harris National Museum of Dentistry at the University of Maryland in Baltimore. (From VOA Video)
A recreation of a typical early dentist office is shown at the Dr. Samuel D. Harris National Museum of Dentistry at the University of Maryland in Baltimore. (From VOA Video)

Patrick Cutter is a researcher at the museum.

“What we're looking at here is kind of an early idea of what a dentist office would have looked like. But most of the time a dentist would have actually just been a traveling dentist, so he would have went from town square to town square.”

With more than 40,000 items, the museum contains one of the largest dental collections in the world. Visitors can see some of the tools used by early dentists to work on patients. Some of the old equipment looks more like torture devices than dental instruments.

Others shown seem fit for kings and queens. For example, Queen Victoria's dentist used instruments made of gold and pearls.

A display of dental instruments used on Queen Victoria is shown at the Dr. Samuel D. Harris National Museum of Dentistry at the University of Maryland in Baltimore. (From VOA Video)
A display of dental instruments used on Queen Victoria is shown at the Dr. Samuel D. Harris National Museum of Dentistry at the University of Maryland in Baltimore. (From VOA Video)

The museum shows many examples of false teeth, along with explanations about the kinds of materials used to make them.

One of the most popular areas shows a set of false teeth once worn by America’s first president, George Washington. But the museum corrects a widely believed story that Washington’s false teeth were wooden. They were actually made of animal bone.

Historians believe the false teeth made it difficult for Washington to eat and speak. They say this is likely why his second inaugural speech contained just 135 words – the shortest in history.

One museum exhibit shows many false teeth, including a set that belonged to America's first president, George Washington. (From VOA Video)
One museum exhibit shows many false teeth, including a set that belonged to America's first president, George Washington. (From VOA Video)

Some early tools used to clean teeth were also made from animal parts, the museum’s Patrick Cutter explains.

“Some of the older toothbrushes that were actually made out of animal bone.”

The cleaning end of the brushes often came from the hair of cows or other animals. The museum also shows teeth from a mix of animals and notes how they are different from human teeth.

In addition, visitors can explore how teeth have long been used to solve mysteries and crimes. And, they can see the history of tooth replacement and learn about new technology that could grow replacement teeth.

One part of the museum, called Mouthpower, contains large toothbrushes and mouths. The models show how bacteria can damage the teeth and let people practice cleaning methods.

While visitors to this unusual museum might at times feel like they are in a dentist office, the experience is sure to be a lot more pleasant.

I’m Bryan Lynn.

Maxim Moskalkov reported this story for VOA News. Bryan Lynn adapted it for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.

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Words in This Story

dentist n. person whose job is to care for people's teeth

pearl n. a hard, white, round object made inside the shell of an oyster, used to make jewelry

inaugural adj. happening as part of an official ceremony or celebration when someone (such as a newly elected official) begins an important job

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