Martin van Butchell: The Dentist Who Put His Dead Wife on Display

May 25, 2023 0 comments

Quackery in dentistry has existed as far back as the earliest days when sufferers from dental problems sought treatment at the hands of some type of practitioner. Among those offering remedies, there existed both legitimate dentists and charlatans. The quacks were easy to spot. They usually resembled showmen taking their practice to the streets, attracting patients through advertisements and flamboyance, with acrobatics, musical instruments, and even trained animals. Like other scam artists, these dentists were notorious for their lack of ethics and association with fraudulent treatments.

One British dentist who was known as much for his quackeries as for his eccentricities was Martin van Butchell.

Van Butchell, the son of a tapestry maker, was born in 1735. He trained as a surgeon under Scottish anatomist and physician John Hunter who was considered one of the leading obstetricians and anatomy teacher of the times. Later on, he developed an interest in dentistry, possibly as a result of breaking one of his own teeth.

Pretty soon, Van Butchell had set up a successful business as a dentist, fixing teeth and making dentures at Mount Street in Mayfair, London. Van Butchell was well-known for his advertising. His leaflets were packed full of claims of painless cures and ended with a veritable list of medical accreditation. His fees were very high, charging as many as 2 guineas for a consultation, while a full set of false teeth cost 80 guineas. Unusual for the time, Butchell refused to go to house calls, once turning down an astonishing 1,000 guineas to visit a patient at home.

Also read: Painless Parker: The Showman Dentist

Eventually, he started treating a wide variety of medical conditions including fistulas, piles, pimples, boils and ulcers, aching legs, tumors, abscesses, and so on. Van Butchell was also an inventor of some sort dabbling in sundry projects. He designed and sold various “elastic devices” to keep up a gentleman’s clothes and garters for women. He also invented cork-lined stirrups to keep his boots from sliding off and designed an unusual bridle which included a blind that he could “let down over his horse’s eyes, and draw up again at pleasure”.

Van Butchell was also eccentric in person. He was often seen on the streets with his long white beard, and his all-white clothes, riding his white pony which he decorated with purple spots and sometimes with black stripes. He often carried a large bone in his hand.

Van Butchell was an affable and cheerful person, but was noted to be kooky. Among his idiosyncrasies were his refusal to call for his children by name, whistling for them instead. He married twice and gave each wife the choice of wearing black or white every day. The first wife chose black and the second chose white.

When his wife died in 1775, the eccentric dentist had her body preserved. Prominent surgeons and anatomists, brothers John and William Hunter injected preservatives and color additives into her blood vessels to make the cheeks and lips glow. She was dressed with her wedding gown, and with a fine set of glass eyes, the embalmed body was displayed in Van Butchell’s drawing room for visitors.

The reasons behind Van Butchell's decision to preserve his wife remain unknown. Speculation arose that there might have been a clause in their marriage agreement, permitting him to retain her property only as long as she remained unburied. Another possibility was that it served as a publicity stunt. The influx of visitors desiring to see his embalmed wife became so overwhelming that Van Butchell had to post a notice, prohibiting strangers from viewing her unless accompanied by an acquaintance.

When Van Butchell remarried, his second wife objected to the persistent presence of her predecessor in the house. As a result, the embalmed body was relocated to the Hunterian Museum in 1815, where it was displayed until it was destroyed in the fire caused by a bombing raid on London in May 1941

Van Butchell died in 1814 and was buried in St George’s Fields, London.

# Martin Van Butchell: the eccentric dentist who embalmed his wife, The Royal College of Surgeons
# The curious tale of Martin van Butchell’s first wife, Museum of London


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