BALTIMORE – Hear the phrase “National Museum of Dentistry” and the image that leaps to mind is probably of a small, rather pathetic roadside attraction with maybe two rooms and five part- time employees. The sort of place that “Weird Al” Yankovic satirized in his song “The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota.”
As it turns out, the Dr. Samuel D. Harris National Museum of Dentistry is much more. It had 8,000 visitors last year (the year it opened) and expects to have at least three times that many this year, said Dr. Bill Swanson, executive director.
“There’s about 20 that call themselves museums,” said Swanson, “but they’re more like exhibits. We’re the only one that has a permanent staff.”
One of the museum’s interactive displays shows you a smile up close and gives you the chance to guess which famous person sports this particular set of choppers. Another shows classic comedy routines involving teeth and dentists, and stunts like a man pulling a car with his teeth, armless people painting, writing and using the computer with their mouths and 80-year-old “Banana” George Blair waterskiing barefoot with the hand grip in his teeth.
“I think the museum surprises a lot of people,” said Swanson. “They’re expecting to see a lot of dental cabinets and a lot of dental chairs, and the first thing you see is teeth in popular culture.”
The museum also has dental cabinets and dental chairs, of course. In addition, it has specimens of the teeth of ancient peoples, including a Mayan skull with pierced and studded teeth, an Egyptian skull with teeth worn from years of gritty flour, and the false teeth (ivory, not wood) of George Washington. Among the things you learn at the museum:
* The most powerful muscles in the human body are the muscles in the jaw.
* A “conveyor belt” in the gums of sharks draws new-grown teeth to the front of the mouth to replace lost or broken ones.
* William Pickett, an African-American cowboy, used to control steers by jumping onto their backs and gripping their upper lips between his teeth.
A substantial percentage of the museum’s business is with groups of students on field trips. About 3,000 students toured the museum last year, and more than 8,000 are scheduled to come, said Swanson.
The museum also holds various family programs. The next one, “Jaws, Claws and Paws,” will be Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m. and will teach pet owners how to take care of their pets’ teeth.
Swanson is one of only three people in the United States who hold master’s degrees in dental history.
“I was a practicing dentist in the Air Force,” he said. “I’d always collected different things — matchbooks, pens, pencils, coins.” In London he began collecting dental antiques such as old toothpaste containers.
The museum itself was the brainchild of the American Academy of the History of Dentistry in 1984. The Academy decided to place the museum in Baltimore, since the first dental school in the world was there.
The Baltimore College of Dental Surgery donated its collection of about 20,000 dentistry-related objects, which the museum has doubled since then, Swanson said.
Dr. Samuel D. Harris, the pediatric dentist for whom the museum is named, donated $1 million to its construction. The exhibits were designed by a company that designs exhibits for the Smithsonian and the National Park Service.
From 1904 to 1929 the building housed the University of Maryland School of Dentistry. After that it served various purposes until being renovated and opened as a museum in 1996. The museum is located at 31 South Greene Street at Lombard and is open Wednesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m. Admission is $4.50 for adults and $2.50 for children 6 and under. -30-