Steal Your Face Right Off Your Head

Richard Zacks’ An Underground Education is a bottomless repository of ways in which human beings have been brutal and beastly to one another over the millennia.

Of interest today is Zacks’ accounting of how the wealthy once relied upon the teeth of the poor and the dead to replace their own rotting dentition.

Ambrose Pare, sometimes described as “the father of modern surgery,” wrote of “a lady of the prime nobility who had her rotten tooth pulled, then at the same time had a sound tooth drawn from one of her waiting maids, to be substituted and inserted, which tooth over time took root and grew so strong that she could chew upon it as well as any of the rest.” It is said that the practice among Parisian dentists of the 1780s, of yanking teeth from the mouths of the poor to fit them into the rotting gums of the French aristocracy, was one of the factors that ultimately encouraged the French peasantry to support removing the heads of said aristocrats.

The guillotine, however, hardly stopped the practice. Zacks tells us that George Washington’s dentist, John Greenwood, returned from a trip to Europe in 1805 with an entire keg filled with human teeth. Zacks notes that “[a] whole generation wore ‘Waterloo’ dentures made from teeth yanked from the corpses on the battlefield and the practice continued as late as the Civil War, when thousands of teeth were stolen from bodies moldering at places like Bull Run and Gettysburg.” Prayed one supplier of stolen teeth: “Oh, sir, only let there be a battle, and there will be no want of teeth. I’ll draw them as fast as the men are knocked down.”

I was reminded of these practices when I read today that the shameless corporados of Colgate Palmolive stole a folk toothpowder used by the people of India for centuries, patented it in the US, and have now returned with it to India, hoping thereby to reap billions by knocking out the native competition in the Indian oral-hygiene market.

Compliant US officials granted to Colgate in June a patent for what the company lied was a revolutionary new “red herbal dentifrice.”

However, Indian activists claim that the patent is bogus because the ingredients—including clove oil, camphor, black pepper and spearmint—have been used for the same purpose for hundreds, “if not thousands”, of years on the subcontinent.

The dispute is likely to become a test case for who owns India’s folk medicines—a repository potentially worth billions.

The patent, the Indian activists allege, is the latest act of “biopiracy”—whereby Western corporations plunder techniques, plants or genes used in the emerging world for centuries, for commercial profit.

“This toothpowder is classical in origin,” said Devender Triguna, the president of the Association of Manufactures of Ayurvedic Medicines, an Indian body that promotes traditional remedies. It is demanding that the Indian government take legal action against Colgate.

“The ingredients date back to antiquity. They have been used by the common Indian man for thousands of years. So how can it possibly be patented?” Triguna asked.

Colgate has refused to comment, though its patent application lies that its stolen toothpaste is New and Different because it employs red iron oxide.

India and other nations are becoming increasingly irritated with colonialist corporados plundering the world’s natural resources for medicines and cosmetics without bothering to acknowledge sources or pay royalties. Seventeen of them have combined in the Group of Like-Minded Megadiverse Countries, “as a mechanism of cooperation to promote their interests regarding biological diversity and in particular the protection of traditional knowledge, access to genetic resources and the fair and equitable sharing of benefits derived from their use.” India is meanwhile putting up 34 million webpages documenting its ancient medicinal techniques, in an effort to prevent them from being pirated by shameless grasping foreign corporados.

I would go further.

Why does Colgate even need to be in India? It doesn’t belong there. Just like McDonald’s in France, the ceaselessly beating gums of Bible-thumping yammerers in Madagascar, and the British in the six northern counties of Ireland. They should all be thrown out.

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2 Responses to “Steal Your Face Right Off Your Head”


  1. 1 possum October 24, 2010 at 2:06 am

    Money talks as always. Corporate greed knows no bounds in our capitalistic world today. The people of India deserve no quarter in the mindset of the Colgate executives. Just think how many folk remedies are today exploited as modern medicine. Curare and digitalis come to mind quickly. Toothpaste is shameful but characteristic of today’s corporate ways. One more very sad commentary on this world in which we live.

    • 2 bluenred October 24, 2010 at 11:32 am

      At least the Good part is that some of these peoples are starting to combine to try to fend off these corporados. I wish them all the best. I plan to follow up on researching the efforts of that outfit I linked to in the piece.


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