Book Review

  • Richard Barnett
2017 Thames & Hudson price £19.95 pp. 256 ISBN: 9780500519110 | ISBN: 978-0-5005-1911-0

The Smile Stealers marks the third in the 'Sick Rose' trilogy, authored by clinician and medical historian Richard Barnett, in partnership with the Wellcome Collection, published by arts publishing firm Thames & Hodges.

The award-winning series, also known as the 'Illogy', has been praised for its book design, its use of rare and unseen archive material from the Wellcome Collection and Library, and its gruesome yet morbidly beautiful portrayal of medical and surgical advancement through the ages. Being both trained as a medical doctor and a professor of history, Barnett expertly narrates the 'medical history' that has shaped the dental profession from its gruesome origins of the 'tooth puller', through to its modern day format of the skilled clinical service provider and aesthetician of the twenty-first century.

Book designer Dan Streat continues to employ the exceptional attention to detail that allowed the first of the series, The Sick Rose, to win the British Book Design and Production award in 2014. This latest volume is no less beautiful – bound in an Instagram-worthy colour scheme of off-white, rosy 'millennial' pink and highlighted with gold debossing, the cover evokes teeth, gums and precious-metal filling materials. Head of Illustrated Reference at Thames & Hodges, Tristan de Lacey, even states that the geometric themes of the chapter title pages are a reference to Victorian apothecary bottles, and the bite-mark, jaw-hinged end papers are coloured in an 'articulating paper' blue.

This book makes particular reference to the role of Pierre Fauchard, considered the 'father' of modern dentistry, in transforming the image of the gruesome and feared tooth-pullers into the dentiste, a skilled clinical professional sought out by the self-conscious bourgeoisie of eighteenth century France, who were concerned with attaining the high-status associated with a beautiful mouth full of healthy teeth, described by Barnett as le bouche orneé. What is striking is how this reflects the current-day demand for high-quality aesthetic and cosmetic dentistry in a society with an ever-growing obsession with physical appearance and status.

Changes in social and cultural attitudes towards the mouth and disease are explored alongside the more clinical aspects of dental history, such as the role of anaesthesia and the invention of the dental drill. The gruesome medieval art of tooth-pulling is described in detail, with historical excerpts describing the 'malevolent tooth worm', considered to be the cause of tooth pain for hundreds of years before the advent of germ theory. Beautiful depictions of St Apollonia, patron saint of dentistry, accompany an exploration of the religious and spiritual themes surrounding dentistry in the past, while references to modern films and advertising highlight the role that patient-as-consumer has played in shaping dentistry into the global industry we know today.

While dentistry may seem an unconventional topic for a 'coffee-table' book, The Smile Stealers would be fit for a stylish dental clinic waiting room, although may not be the first choice of reading material for the anxious or squeamish patient. But just as high quality dentistry should combine clinical substance as well as good aesthetics, this book is far more than style over substance, and would not be out of place on a BDS curriculum or CPD reading list, offering the dentist-in-training and qualified professionals alike, a retrospective look at the wider context of the constantly changing culture and values of the dental profession.