If you had a toothache in Melbourne, Australia, between 1898 and the 1930s, Australian dentist J.J. Forster had a quick solution: Rip it out, and chuck it away. That, it seems, was the technique he used for around 1,000 rotting molars found by archaeologists working on two six-month digs beneath the city’s business district.
As part of an $11-billion metro construction project to build five new subway stations before 2025, the guts of the city have been opened up for excavation, revealing hidden truths about how early 20th-century Australians lived their lives. The teeth, found near what was once Forster’s practice off Swanston Street, tell a vivid story about the horrors of Victorian dentistry. Rather than attempting to repair teeth, 9News reported, it seems to have been the standard to simply pull them out. It’s likely clients didn’t mind: Many of the teeth show signs of cavity decay and root exposure, suggesting patients would have been in agony by the time they made it into Forster’s chair.
What was to follow, however, may have been more painful still. Speaking to The Age newspaper, Melbourne University endodontist Mark Evans explained that drugs on offer were usually limited to cocaine, novocaine or nitrous oxide. They were unreliable, didn’t last, and would leave patients in excruciating pain once they wore off, without any more gentle painkillers like modern paracetamol to take the edge off.
“It would have been horrible,” he said. In fact, pulling the tooth with forceps may have been less painful than treating it with a vibrating drill, which were shoddy and pedal-driven.
Once his patients had staggered away from the practice, Forster seems to wanted to get rid of their teeth as quickly as possible, scattering them across his workshop or cramming them into an iron plumbing pipe. “We think he wasn’t that good at discarding teeth in a hygienic fashion,” excavation director Megan Goulding told 9News. “He probably flushed them down toilets or the basin.”
The digs have revealed around half a million other everyday treasures from historic Melbourne—though most are not as grisly as these hundreds of teeth. On the site of a 19th-century bar, archaeologists found items likely used for gambling, including 20 cattle bone or ivory dice, as well as a pair of jet earrings inspired by Queen Victoria’s mourning attire. Other finds detailed on the project’s website include a German-made toy soldier, dating back to the 1850s, and the oldest item yet: a tree stump from Melbourne’s pre-colonial woodland.
Those on the ground can get an even closer look: Special viewing windows allow passersby to see the researchers at work. “It’s quite evocative,’’ Goulding told The Age. ‘‘Every aspect of our European past is here on the site and you can still see it.’’