A benevolent dentist

BEING A RETIRED dentist, I could not resist viewing a special exhibition held at the Museum of Freemasonry in Freemasons Hall in London’s Queen Street near Covent Garden. As a curious Londoner, visiting an exhibition in this imposing building had an additional attraction: a chance to see inside an edifice I have walked past many times, always wondering about it without ever entering it. I was alerted to the special exhibition by a message from a friend in Bombay, who keeps a close eye on current cultural events both in Bombay and London. She thought that this show would interest me because it is about the activities of a dentist, Bartolomeo (also known as ‘Bartholomew’) Ruspini (1728-1813).

Born near Bergamo in northern Italy, son of a minor member of the aristocracy, Ruspini was recognised as a surgeon by The College of Physical Sciences in Bergamo in 1758. He decided to specialise in dentistry and to further his skills, he travelled to Paris, which was then recognised for its training in this field. In those days, dentistry was not a recognised profession as it is nowadays. Most people who had dental problems, sought the assistance of hairdressers, blacksmiths, and others without any professional training. To distinguish himself from these untrained people, he called himself a ‘surgeon dentist’(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bartholomew_Ruspini). Today, the people, whom you might call ‘dentists’ are in fact ‘dental surgeons’.  I was qualified to practise dentistry, and one of my dental degrees was ‘Batchelor in Dental Surgery’.

Ruspini arrived in England by May 1752. He married his first wife, Elizabeth Stiles, in 1757, five years before he was accepted as a member of The Burning Bush Lodge of the Freemasons in Bristol. Later, Ruspini went on to establish several new Freemasons lodges (https://rmsghistoryextra.wordpress.com/tag/elizabeth-orde/).  By 1766, he was practising in London under the patronage of the mother of King George III. He had already treated royalty, so great was his reputation as a healer of dental problems.  His acceptance into high society was no doubt facilitated by his renunciation of Roman Catholicism and his second marriage, in 1767, by which time his first wife had died, to Elizabeth Orde. The couple were to produce nine children, five of whom survived infancy. Two of his sons became surgeon dentists.

In an England, which was then not particularly friendly to foreigners, Ruspini was accepted well because of his good nature, excellent clinical skills, and great ability to get on well with people and to ‘network’ in high society. He was highly regarded as a Freemason. His skills on the dance floor, delight in display, and flamboyant character made him a wonderful masonic master of ceremonies. In keeping with the ideals of Freemasonry, Ruspini exhibited much benevolence: hospitality, generosity, kindness, and charity. An example of the latter was his important involvement in the founding of the Royal Masonic School for Girls (in 1788).

Ruspini had his main residence at 32 Pall Mall in London, but also visited Bath frequently. He was famed for his patented styptic, a substance that stemmed haemorrhage. He also created a dentifrice as well as an elixir for easing toothache.

In 1768, Ruspini published the first edition of his “Treatise on Teeth”. I found a copy of its eighth edition whilst searching online. The book is well-written and easy to read and, in many places, not too out of date. It would do first-year dental students no harm to read this informative book, well at least as far as the sections on “The Disorders of the Teeth”.  This section has become somewhat dated, but not altogether so. For example, the author advises that disorders might arise from:

“… any particles of food that stick between the teeth and putrify … the excessive use of smoking and chewing tobacco … sugar, when used immoderately, is another enemy of the Teeth … All mineral exhalations are also very pernicious, as we see by daily experience in all those persons who work in any of the quicksilver, lead, or copper mines etc…”

Of the causes of caries (tooth decay), Ruspini gives several, but does not mention sugar in connection with this common problem, despite what he wrote in the quote above. However, he did consider that sugar was important in another disorder:

“Children who eat too much sugar, or sweetmeats, generally have their gums corroded; confectioners and chemists are subject to this disorder …”

Although much can be criticised as being out of date in his book, Ruspini did a wonderful job of describing concisely and clearly what was known about dental anatomy and pathology in his time. Part of the book is dedicated to clinical case studies. One of these concerned:

“…Captain Nelson, of the Royal Navy, whom I accidentally met at Portsmouth…”

Ruspini cured him of a painful fleshy growth in his mouth, which other surgeons had wrongly diagnosed as syphilitic.

The book ends with adverts promoting Ruspini’s styptic balsam, elixir, and dentifrice powder. A copy of this book and another about his styptic are on display at the special exhibition in the beautiful library at Freemasons Hall. Other exhibits included documents, drawings, cartoons, and a few other objects. For me the great thing about the exhibition was not its contents but introducing to me a truly remarkable member of my profession.

Members of the public visiting Freemasons Hall in Queen Street are encouraged to see the magnificent collection of items and documents relating to freemasonry before seeing the exhibition dedicated to Ruspini. The museum contains a rich variety of exhibits, many of them displaying the Freemasons’ passion for the use of symbols, and most of them objects of great beauty. Not knowing anything about Freemasonry, this first visit to the museum was for me more a dazzling visual experience than a learning opportunity. On a subsequent visit, I hope to spend much more time examining the artefacts and their informative labels.

The Freemasons Hall is a ‘larger-than-life’, exuberant work of architecture and construction. It is the headquarters of the United Grand Lodge of England as well as the Supreme Grand Chapter of Royal Masons of England. The present building was designed by the architects Henry Victor Ashley (1872-1945) and Francis Winton Newman (1878-1953). It was built between 1927 and 1933 to commemorate the 3,225 Freemasons who died whilst on active service in WW1. Some say that the building is art-deco in style. This is the case, but there are also many elements in the design suggestive of a modern version of neo-classicism.

I am grateful to my friend in Bombay for introducing me to Ruspini and by doing so, giving me a reason to visit the remarkable London headquarters of the Freemasons.