By Lauren Renaud (Vanderbilt University)
A gleaming white smile represents youth and beauty. Today, pearly whites are achievable for many through regular visits to the dentist. However, in eighteenth century France, the dental field was just seceding from quackery. A new professional, the dentiste, was replacing local blacksmiths who remedied toothaches through extraction with bulky metal tools. Without dental hygienists and the knowledge that sugar leads to cavities, even French royalty couldn’t escape the blight of tooth decay.
The most visible of royal dental disasters afflicted French King Louis XIV. Ironically, the Sun King, known for visual extravagance, was toothless by age forty. Throughout the 1680’s Louis XIV experienced tooth decay probably catalyzed by his taste for candied fruits and sweetmeats. Although the decay necessitated numerous extractions, the royal surgeon refused to remove the king’s rotten molars because dentistry was considered a “mechanical” field. Instead, he summoned arracheurs de dents (itinerant tooth pullers) to perform the tasks.
The procedures progressed regularly until 1685, when one extraction merited mention in the Journal de santé [The Health Journal]. In this case, the extractor accidentally removed a large portion of the king’s jaw and palate in addition to the rotten tooth. The Sun King was left with a large hole in his mouth. After this incident, whenever the King took a drink, the beverage spouted out his nose in a fountain-like manner. A surgeon later cauterized the hole ending the embarrassment and the festering infection.
After experiencing the woes of tooth decay, Louis XIV appointed a specialist dental surgeon in 1712. Years later, Louis XV also grew concerned about tooth loss. He assigned an even greater importance to the dentistry by granting his personal dentiste, Jean-Francois Capperon, letters of ennoblement. This meant that, by royal decree, the dentiste was now a member of the nobility.
Tooth decay not only afflicted French commoners but also members of high society. For French royalty, who assigned utmost importance to their appearances, the services of the dentiste became necessary for preserving their smiles and the marriage potential of their children.