How hygienists won the war


Never had so many owed so much to so few, but it’s not so well known that those few owed a lot to their hygienists.

As the Battle of Britain raged the RAF realised it had a serious problem – five per cent of air missions were aborted due to toothache.

Pilots discovered their rotten mouths were acutely painful at high altitudes with the lower air pressure, and so cleaning teeth suddenly became a matter of life and death.

In response RAF drafted in a band of young women to help. For practice they took paint off door handles, but it worked –  and they became the first ever hygienists.

Obscure dental curiosities like this make Drills, Dentures and Dentistry: An Oral History well worth a watch and a great source of material for your dental website blog.

It aired on Monday night on BBC 4 and can be viewed on iPlayer for the next few weeks.

The presenter Professor Joanna Bourke, who researches pain at Birkbeck, visits the BDA to investigate the macabre market in dead men’s teeth that blossomed with the bumper harvest of 50,000 bodies at Waterloo.

Battlefield scavangers sold individual teeth in London markets that they’d ripped from the healthy bodies of dead young soldiers, but only rich Londoners could afford whole sets.

She also shines a light on the unlikely inventor of the modern toothbrush; in 1780 rag trader William Addis was jailed for organising an anti government riot. In his cell he was attempting to clean his teeth with an old rag, but realising a brush would be more effective, he persuaded a guard to buy him some bristles which he added to a piece of bone. He later improved his invention with pig bristles.

Watch Drills, Dentures and Dentistry: An Oral History Watch at

Best wishes


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