Great Irish Famine victims were heavy smokers which caused badly rotten teeth, researchers from the University of Otago, New Zealand and Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) have discovered. The research was carried out on the teeth of 363 adult victims of the Great Irish Famine, who died in the Kilkenny Union Workhouse between 1847 and 1851.
The findings show poor oral health among most of the famine victims, with 80% of the adult remains showing evidence of tooth decay, and over half missing teeth. There were also revealing signs of pipe smoking marks on their teeth.
This is the first study that explores the relationship between smoking and oral health in an archaeological sample of a historical population. Prof. Eileen Murphy, from QUB explains this research is important as the current clinical understanding of how smoking affects oral health is not fully understood, and this study adds to that discourse: “As well as this, the study also gives us a unique insight into the living conditions of the working classes in Victorian Irish society at the time of the Great Famine”.
Dr Jonny Geber, from the Department of Anatomy at the University of Otago says: “We believe the bad condition of the teeth studied was because of widespread pipe smoking in both men and women, rather than their diet of potatoes and milk, as a comparative study of the 20th century population on the same diet didn’t have the same evidence of poor oral health”.