“Teeth” at the Wellcome Collection

At the Wellcome Collection there was a special exhibition on colour. It was called “The Pharmacy of Colour”. A short film pointed out that certain substances used as pigments were also used as medicine. A red pigment called lac, produced from grinding up lac insects, was also used as a medicine. Saffron is both a dye and a medicine. And the terribly poisonous Red Lead was also cheerfully described as a red paint on medieval manuscripts, mixed with egg yolk. Don’t lick the pages.  It was also, alarmingly, used for treating intestinal disorders. A cabinet held jars of bright pigment, well protected behind glass. Yellow Ochre was there, and Ultramarine Blue, both of which I use. I’ve often wondered about the colours in my box, and the real chemistry behind the names.

Interesting though this was, it didn’t take long to look at, and it had been a long walk to the Wellcome Collection. So I went to their other current exhibition “Teeth”. This was mainly about dentistry through the ages.  The images were alarming and I was unprepared. I found some of the exhibits calming though. Here is “Junior Dental Chair” from the 1950s. It reminds me of my very first dentist, Mr Gant. He must have had one of these. I can almost smell it, the leather at the back, and that hard, sculpted, bow in which you rested your head.

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There were many people drawing in there. An art class, perhaps.

The equipment was strangely humanoid.

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I read that “Patients from the 1960s and 1970s, when amalgam filling use peaked, are known to dentists as the “heavy metal generation”. That would be me then. Amalgam is mercury, silver, tin and copper.

I also read that “Tooth decay is the number one reason for child admissions to hospital.” I paused at that statistic. The woman next to me was reading it too. I commented that I found it surprising.  She said it was because “People can’t afford to take their children to the dentist.” She spoke with authority. Dental charges have gone up, she explained. The hospital is part of the NHS and so is free of charge at the point of use. “So people wait until it’s really bad, and then take the child to A&E,” she said, speaking as though a practitioner. She smiled grimly and walked away. A strong woman, upright, informed, articulate, opinionated, caring. A dentist herself, perhaps, or an NHS administrator, or medical person, I thought.

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