The Natural History of the Human Teeth, published in two parts in 1771 and 1778, was John Hunter’s first major work, and details a series of experiments which although sound bizarre now, laid the foundations for modern day transplants.
One specimen from these investigations still survives today in the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London – a bisected cockerel’s head with half a tooth sticking out of its comb.
Hunter describes how he took a “sound tooth from a person’s head,” made an incision into the cock’s comb, “pressed the fang of the tooth into this wound, and fastened it with threads.” He then let the cock live a few months before killing it, but not before he’d injected the head with dye. After removing the cockerel’s head and bathing it in weak acid the tooth was soft enough for him to slice through both it and the comb lengthways.
“I found the vessels of the tooth well injected, and also observed that the external surface of the tooth adhered everywhere to the comb by vessels, similar to the union of a tooth with the gum and sockets.”
It wasn’t the greatest of his experiments – earlier efforts in which he used a spur from the bird’s heel or grafted one of its testes onto its belly proved more successful – but it was invaluable groundwork nonetheless. And as a result, for much of the second half of the 18th century, tooth transplantation became popular throughout Britain.
The specimen of the bisected cockerel’s head can be seen here.