Henry Forman Atkinson Museum
Tucked away in the Melbourne Dental School are 3500 objects, documents and photographs dating as far back as the early 1700’s: an impressive historical collection. It traces dental history from the age of casting spells to drive out spirits to today’s recognised profession at the cutting edge of technology.
Equipment before sterilisation
In pride of place is a replica early 19th century surgery with velvet chair, pedal drill and bone-handled instruments. From mid 1800’s, germ theory put an end to surfaces that couldn’t be properly cleaned. Early sterilisation processes demanded non-porous materials thus excluding velvet and bone.
Where did laughing gas come from?
Anaesthetics were also discovered around mid-1800’s, with cocaine and arsenic in use into the early 20th century until nitrous oxide gas revolutionised pain relief around the 1940’s. The idea came from ‘laughing gas parties’ of the British upper classes!
Early dental history shows practitioners mostly extracting painful teeth using techniques that today seem primitive at best. Perhaps this is the basis for the common and prevailing dislike of visiting the dentist.
Only the wealthy could afford the earliest replacements for lost (extracted) teeth. During the early 1800’s (Waterloo) and mid-1800’s (Crimean War) teeth removed from dead soldiers were used to make the most coveted dentures. Alternatives came to include marble, porcelain and vulcanite made from India rubber.
Dentistry and war-time
During WW1, dentistry gained recognition alongside orthodox medical practice in treating ‘trench mouth’ (or gingivitis) that loosened teeth, making it difficult to eat hard army rations. And back in London, with their superior knowledge of the jaw and mouth, dentists were involved in radical surgeries to rebuild faces damaged by the latest artillery.
Prof Henry Forman Atkinson
Henry was born in 1912 and completed his dentistry training at Manchester University. He held positions in research and teaching and served with the British Army in WWII as a maxillogacial surgeon. In 1953, with his wife and two children, he sailed to Australia to take up the chair in dental prosthetics at Melbourne University. After retiring in 1978, he took on cataloguing items in the Dental Museum, extensively researching the history of dentistry in Australia; in 2006 the museum was renamed in his honour.
Now in the 21st century, dentistry is increasingly sought for cosmetic outcomes, for whitening or straightening or otherwise improving a smile line. The museum charts the emergence of dental education as well as the dental profession from it’s beginnings as somewhere just to go to be rid of a painful rotten tooth!