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Boils, Plague Sores and Embossed Carbunkles

Going to the Dentist

A Statue Showing a Tooth Extraction

Guest curated by Martin Brown


About the Item

Most people hate going to the dentist, but 500 years ago it was much worse than it is today.

Highly trained and upper class physicians did not want to get their hands dirty pulling teeth, so you would seek out the humble barber-surgeon to deal with a toothache. As their name suggests, barber-surgeons would also perform surgery and give haircuts in their shops.

Having a tooth removed was a very painful and dangerous process, as you can see from the expression on the patient’s face in this statue. As there was no proper pain relief or real understanding of the importance of cleanliness, barber-surgeons relied on alcohol and herbal potions to numb the pain and prevent infection.


Martin Brown’s Response

 Martin’s notes:

'The Barber Surgeon'

"At first I wanted to show the gruesome-looking syringe or amputation saw from the exhibition. But I couldn’t think of a way to show them or have a gag that wasn’t either a) too grim or b) un-funny.

"I was hoping to show the utter normality of using things that we find strange now.

"What is normal, or even desirable, has so much more to do with circumstance, custom and culture than we think.

"Having come up with something normal-looking - a haircut - all I needed was a speech bubble that pointed out the role of barber-surgeons in Shakespeare’s time. And maybe, referred to one of the scary objects not otherwise seen!"


Behind the Scenes!


Watch This!



Science Museum Group. Statue showing a tooth extraction, Europe, 1601-1700. A127865Science Museum Group Collection Online. Accessed January 18, 2021.

Illustrations copyright © Martin Brown