Heavy smoking ‘damaged teeth of famine victims – men, women and teenagers’

Smoking was rife among men, women and teenagers during the Great Famine

Smoking was rife during the Famine among both men and women, according to a new study.

Sadly, while smoking a pipe may have given people a tiny bit of comfort during their suffering, it would have had negative consequences to their teeth.

Dr. Jonny Geber and his team studied the teeth of 363 impoverished men and women who died in the Kilkenny Union Workhouse between 1847 and 1851.

The remains of many Famine victims revealed their poor oral health, which included tooth loss and tooth decay.

There were also traces of pipe smoking marks on many of the teeth.

Interested in discovering more about your Irish roots? This free online genealogy course with Strathclyde University shows you how to trace your family tree and also covers the use of DNA testing in genealogical research.

They found that nearly eight out of ten had tooth decay and over half were missing teeth. Nearly all the teeth showed a build-up of tartar.

Dr Geber says the teeth were in poor condition because of widespread pipe smoking among both men and women.

A high percentage of the skeletons that were studied showed evidence of clay pipe use such as marks from when a pipe would have been clenched between the teeth.

Dr Geber dismissed the idea that it could e due to a diet that consisted mainly of potato and milk because people on comparable diets today show better oral health.

He said: “Our study shows that it is not only diet that affects your oral health, but many other factors – and we argue that smoking was a major contributing factor in the Kilkenny population sample.

“They are also unlike to have cleaned their teeth efficiently – as evidence by a lot of tartar build-up – so that is obviously also another contributing factor.”

Interested in discovering more about your Irish roots? This free online genealogy course with Strathclyde University shows you how to trace your family tree and also covers the use of DNA testing in genealogical research.

Literature from the time claimed that all boys and most girls of around 14 years of aged were pipe smokers.

Dr Geber’s study showed that 61% of adult males and 29% of adult females regularly smoked. However, the real figures could be higher as the marks wouldn’t show up on people who had taken up smoking more recently.

It is thought that the people smoked for a source of comfort as they lived in the most terrible of conditions.

Sadly, it is likely to have only added to their suffering due to its effect on the person’s teeth.

Dr Gerber said: “While this was a comfort that they felt they could enjoy, despite their dire living conditions, it is likely to have had a very negative impact on their oral health, and thereby made their lives even more difficult.

“Other than causing pain, having a lot of decayed teeth would make it difficult to chew and therefore eat ‘non-soft’ food, for instance.”

Over half of the 26-35-year-olds who were examined had more than one tooth missing. The figure for 18-25-year-olds was 20%.

The authors of the study said: “The current study adds to the growing body of evidence that demonstrates that smoking is not only bad for your health; it is also bad for your teeth.”

Did you know?

‘The man who couldn’t be killed’ - firefighter Mike Molloy was an Irish emigrant living in New York in the early 20th century. He was the victim of a consistent series of murder attempts by an insurance fraud gang. Find out more.