Gulag Skulls Went West?

I had a call the other day from a London Harley Street dentist, a man who makes a small fortune out of the legendarily bad teeth of the (rich and famous) English. He's a nice man by the sound of him, and, I think, a very good doctor.

When a friend of mine recently complained to him that his teeth sometimes chattered, he said he'd read somewhere that teeth-chattering could be a symptom of an (unrecognized) angina. My friend took him seriously and had himself checked out. He's now in a London clinic having a heart bypass operation. The Harley Street dentist probably saved his life.

Anyway, this time the dentist (at my friend's suggestion) had a story to tell me. He said he didn't know how medical students these days studied anatomy and the beginnings of dentistry. He thought they probably did a lot of it on computers and with casts. But in his day -- which was in the 1950s -- it was done with real skeletons and skulls. The thing was -- and he'd never really talked about this before, he said -- there was something wrong with many of these bones, particularly with the skulls.

The skulls were Caucasian in form and origin, he said -- so far, so good. But the teeth, well, the teeth were not normal. In fact, he'd never come across anything quite like them ever since. Instead of being essentially oval in form, they were square, ground down, "as if they'd been exposed to a diet of grit or earth." They were the teeth of foragers, of people who seemed to be desperate gnawers. They were throwbacks, living fossils. Even though they weren't historically old, he said, they didn't seem to have the teeth of modern man at all.

Nobody at the time, he said, had any idea of where these skulls had come from, and there was no particular reason for the students to question their origin. (They were just students; they didn't yet know that what they were looking at was not typical.) But much later, he said, after he'd realized just how untypical the teeth of these skulls actually were, he'd remembered a rumor that had gone round among his contemporaries that they'd come from somewhere in Eastern Europe.

Medical students are not by and large -- even at the best of times -- political creatures. And in the 1950s, when the dentist was a student, little was known about life behind the Iron Curtain except that it was conformist, brutal and drab. So the dentist -- thinking vague thoughts about a poor standard of living and diet -- failed, he said, to put two and two together.

When the Curtain came down, however -- and more was finally known about what had happened in these countries -- he'd realized that though the diet in them might have been poor, that certainly couldn't explain the deformation of the teeth in question. They had to have been the product, he said, of terrible, extreme circumstances. They had, in fact, to have come from the gulag.

Now this notion initially boggles the mind. Nice, young, middle-class British medical students poring over the skeletal remains of political prisoners done to death 1,000 miles, 2,000 miles, 5,000 miles away? Still, it does strike a chord. For the rule of the gulag is that there was nothing there so cynical or so horrible that it could not have been -- was not actually -- performed.

Consider. In the West after the war, with a boom in medical and dental school enrollment, there must have been a high demand for skeletons and skulls -- and a definite shortage. For the West had by this time become squeamish about death; it took dead bodies personally. So why not just surreptitiously provide it with what it needed, whatever the source -- and for valyuta, or hard currency?

I can't clearly say that this is what actually happened. I did call a couple of medical-supply houses in London to try to find out, but they weren't at all forthcoming. (They seemed to regard me as a prurient busybody, and the whole question of the source of actual, rather than plastic, skeletons as both vieux jeu and privileged information.) I also called one of London's teaching hospitals to see what they would say. The answer is nothing: They laughed; they said they very much doubted it; besides, they weren't in that line of business any more.

It's possible that somewhere out there is a Western doctor with a memory as long (and as particular) as that of the Harley Street dentist or a Russian doctor, perhaps, who remembers. For it is something that both I and the Harley Street dentist would dearly like to find out about, one way or another.