January 24, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Dentistry was not much fun in the 18th century, but it has influenced modern smiles none the less...

I attended a seminar last October by Professor Colin Jones, of Queen Mary, University of London, in which he talked of the relationship between smiling and dentistry in 18th century France. This was at the start of my MSc at the London Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine (sadly, the London Centre is now in its last year), and I was very quickly taken with the notion of such odd interactions between a seemingly “unscientific” phenomenon – that of the smile – and a specific science or technology, such as that of 18th century French dentistry. This idea evolved into the basis for Spandex Wizards as a blog exploring such interactions; in my first post, I argued that superheroes would be no more than “spandex wizards” without using “scientific” explanations to explain the existence of their superpowers. I’m returning to the notion of spandex wizard” now because I want spandex wizard to be more than just a joking moniker for superheroes. I’d like to use it as a term for any unexpected interaction between a cultural phenomenon, science, and technology.

This post is going to explore and expand upon the topic that inspired this blog. I’m going to start by looking at the relationship between the smile and French dentistry, and then I’m going to explore how this particular study of the smile is a great example of something that primatology – the scientific study of apes – has been questioning for some time now. The smile might not always have been the indicator of happiness and contentment that it is in modern human society. Hopefully, you’ll now understand a little better why I’ve opted to name this blog Spandex Wizards, and I’ll also have piqued your interest in the relationship between smiling and science.

So, on to the topic at hand: smiling and dentistry in 18th century France. Professor Jones’ seminar caught my attention, not because it argued that there was a relationship between smiling and dentistry – after all, that doesn’t seem like such an obscure relationship – but because it talked about how cultural views on smiling changed during the 18th century, and dentistry had something to do with this. In the time before and around the start of the 18th century, an open-mouthed smile – what we might call a grin – was considered indecent and plebeian. An open-mouthed smile was a symbol of low culture. There are various ideas as to why this might have been the case; one idea goes that baring one’s teeth was animalistic, and thus not becoming of a civilised person; another idea goes that this period saw an influx of raw sugar from the new world, and that sugar-rotted teeth were not exactly the most aesthetically pleasing bodily part to display!

However, during the 18th century, things start to change. Towards the latter half of the century, it became more socially acceptable to smile; in fact, it became trendy to smile. Also, throughout the 18th century, there’s a transformation in dental practice in France, and more specifically, Paris. There’s a change in the nature of the “tooth-pulling” profession: practitioners go from being travelling performers, who stage public tooth-pullings for entertainment and titillation, to professionals, with defined practices and instruments. Indeed, the word “dentiste” appears for the first time in 1728, used by Pierre Fauchard, the father of modern dentistry. There was also a revolution in the technology used by these dentists, with more advanced implements being used for tooth extraction, as well as better and more advanced dentures appearing.

Fauchard's needle-nosed pliers

There’s a definite correlation here between the changes in dentistry and the sudden popularity of the smile, but it’s not quite clear which way round the relationship of causality works, or even how strong it is. Dentistry, as we would recognise it, appeared before the smile was socially acceptable, but it isn’t clear as to whether dentistry became more popular because people wanted to smile, or smiling started because dentistry had endowed them with teeth pleasing enough to bare in public. And of course, this itself is still a fairly narrow conception of smiling and dentistry – I haven’t mentioned the greater context of France during this pre-Revolutionary period. Professor Jones, whose expertise lies in this area, is undertaking research into these changes in the context of the French Revolution, and I think I’ll leave it to the experts to draw broader and more insightful conclusions than those I have suggested so far.

What I found most interesting about Professor Jones’ work was the interaction between smiling and dentistry, and how this case-study showed that open-mouthed smiling wasn’t always considered a “good thing”; a concept that appears a little alien to the toothy grins of modern culture. It got me thinking about whether this was a purely cultural phenomenon, or if the roots of this “bad smile” went a little further back. Was the open-mouthed smile seen as a bad thing because nobody wanted to look at each other’s filthy teeth, or is the smile just not an intrinsically positive expression?

Examining the origins of the smile as a human expression has been an area of interest for primatologists. Signe Preuschoft is one such primatologist, and argues that the ancestry of the smile can be traced back to a habit of certain apes, such as chimpanzees, called the ‘fear grin’. The fear grin is an expression where an ape narrowly bares their teeth to demonstrate to predators that they are harmless. In other animals, the open-mouth ‘smile’ can be a demonstration of submission, or even aggression. These biological perspectives on the smile expose an interesting point: is our “human” smile really relatable to the “fear smile” and other teeth-baring expressions of other animals? They’re essentially the same

Bonobo chimpanzeeexpression, but carry very different meanings across different species; our happy, friendly, human smile seems to be very different to the fear grin of the chimpanzee, our closest primate relative. So are these all expressions with the same origins, or are they different? It’s a difficult question to answer, and there are conflicting accounts. Some even use linguistic arguments to argue that our human smile isn’t comparable to animal smiles, but is instead more closely related to laughter; the latin word for laughter is risus, whilst the latin word for smile is subrisus.

I’m not setting out to answer these questions, but rather draw attention to them. That’s what I’d like to achieve with Spandex Wizards – to draw attention to those questions about relationships between science and culture, questions that many of us might not even have thought about asking. Perhaps our smiles have their origins in 18th century French dentistry, and they’ve evolved from a positive display of the health we owe to the dentist, into a much simpler expression of positivity; or perhaps the smile hearkens back to our primitive instincts, and we bare our teeth in a grin to show that we’re not threatening to each other. The answers here are uncertain, but interesting. I think, regardless of the answer, that perhaps we can be grateful that we do see the modern smile as a simple, happy gesture, and not a horrifying cavity-filled grin of fear.

IMAGES: Wikipedia