Paying for his civilization with his teeth!

Dr Leuman Waugh, University of Buffalo. Early 1900's.

In 1908, while Dr Leuman Waugh was a Professor of Pathology at the University of Buffalo, he attended a presentation by the curator of physical anthropology at the Smithsonian Institute dental conditions of the Inuit (Eskimo) race.  The Dr. Waugh was mesmerized by the presentation, and eagerly accepted an opportunity to study the extensive collection of Inuit skulls in the museum.  It had become his ambition to see first-hand in the living the caries-free mouths, the massive jaws and the strong, regularly aligned teeth of the Inuit, which combine to produce such outstanding examples of normal, efficient occlusion.

In 1921, Dr Waugh had his chance, and travelled to Labrador (now part of Canada).  Eagerly, he looked forward to the opportunity of examining the mouths of the Inuit people.  On arrival at a missionary settlement, to his utter astonishment, instead of the best dental conditions, he found probably the worst he had ever seen!

Dr Waugh made subsequent trips to the arctic under the auspices of the US Health Service to survey the dental health of the Eskimo and to determine the composition of their diet.  He found that as long as the Inuit lived the primitive, nomadic life of his ancestors, he displayed magnificent teeth and jaws.  However, when he adopted the “white man’s diet and mode of living”, there was a marked deterioration in the size and strength of the jaws, and irregularity of the teeth becomes extreme, as in “American white children”.  This occurs in even one generation, and was due to changes in the food, particularly the introduction of soft, sweet foods, sugar and white flour, which displaced the traditional foods, consisting of  caribou, seal, whale, bear, moose, fish, walruses, trapped animals, birds and their eggs, and whatever vegetation and berries they could gather during the brief arctic summer.  The natural diet consisted almost entirely of fat and protein, with fat varying between 35 and 65 percent of the diet, depending upon the time of year.

A few years later in the 1930’s, Dr Weston Price carried out a study on the American Eskimo, mainly along the southwestern seacoast of Alaska. His findings corroborate those of Waugh. Price found that the most remote Eskimos had perfect dentitions with normal occlusions. Caries incidence was found to be 0.09 per cent of the teeth examined in this group. This rate jumped to 13 per cent in a group of Eskimos experiencing their initial contact with civilization. At established settlements with trading posts, the caries incidence soared to 30 to 50 per cent of the teeth examined. Price also pointed out the physical degeneration of the middle and lower face and dental arches which accompanied this shift to the soft, high-carbohydrate diet of the white man.

Price noted no facial or dental irregularities among the primitive Eskimos, but the modernized Eskimos showed narrowed dental arches, and a narrowed base of the nose. As a result of these changes, chronic mouth breathing and irregularities in tooth alignment and jaw relationships were common.

Dr Waugh realized that the Inuit were “veritably paying for his civilization with his teeth.”

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