Little is known about Felix Weiss (1822?-1892), the Bloomsbury dentist who pioneered dental reform, that is, the creation of professional organization and credentialing bodies for British dentists. A vocal champion of the professionalization of dentistry, Weiss worked to improve the professional status of dentists, their certification and training. In the service of professionalization, he was also anonymous author of two popular novels related to dentristry. Of these the better known is Vernon Galbray, or, The Empiric: The History of a Quack Dentist (1875), in which he used a popular novel as a vehicle for educating the public about the dangers of medical quackery.

Weiss's scientific output was apparently not large. In 1864, he published "On the Use and Abuse of the Vulcanite Base" on the appropriateness of Vulcanite, a moldable compound, for making fitted dentures, in The Dental Review; six years later, in 1870, he co-authored an essay on "cases where artificial teeth have been swallowed." On the other hand, he was an energetic organizer and promoter of professional dentistry. By the end of his life, he had been for many years an active member of the College of Dentists and the Odontological Society, in which he held a variety of leadership roles including its presidency. He was also appointed vice-president of the Representative Board of the British Dental Association ("Felix Weiss, LDS").

Weiss's two dentistry-related novels -- Vernon Galbray (1875) and Thurley Tighe (1880) -- together comprised a rather late development of Weiss's long quest to educate the public about the dental profession. By the time those books appeared, Weiss had been working on professionalization of dentistry for decades. As early as 1851 he had published "Dental Empiricism, Past and Present," an impassioned plea for professionalization. In his view, the establishment of professional organizations and standards for certifying practitioners was essential to the progress of the field. Among other things, these institutional guarantors of readiness and competence served to blunt the effects of advertising, which he considered pernicious. At that time advertising played a dual role: while it was the main way in which the public could find dentists, it also served as an excellent vehicle for fleecing them. Weiss wrote:

Men who are honorably endeavoring to make a position, feel acutely the injustice done to them by the public, and, but too frequently, seeing the success that attends the advertising charlatans (no matter how inferior their ability), are led to join them. Upon these arguments we found our conviction that dental advertisements are injurious to the public, and ought in every way to be discountenanced. [410]

Here, he was talking only to other practitioners, and that audience was not the one he most needed to reach. He wanted to sway the minds of patients, not dentists; without more and better information about dentistry, these patients would, he thought, remain too ignorant of the business of dentistry to distinguish reliably between trained practitioners and charlatans before being fleeced by the latter. With his first popular dentistry novel, Weiss added to his quest to professionalize dentistry a new and distinctive form of communicating with the public. Published anonymously and intended to educate patients about the dangers of quackery in dentistry, Vernon Galbray indexed an important shift in Weiss's understanding of how best to effect his desired changes. Instead of appealing to an audience of dentists, he took the fight directly to their patients.

Vernon Galbray was a popular novel about an incompetent dentist, the eponymous Galbray, a Dutch Jew who opens a London clinic. Galbray's assistant, Spyk, also Jewish, is the more competent dentist. But Spyk's prospects are limited, for he is burdened not only by his Jewishness, which makes both him and his employer outsiders in London, but also by his disadvantaged social class. Although things turn out badly for both men, the end is much worse for Spyk, who loses his life in a fire that otherwise merely consumes Galbray's office. Weiss contrasts these two with a third practitioner, Rivington, who is more professional and knowledgeable than Galbray (though not more so than Spyk, who teaches him a great deal). The upshot, according to literary scholar Sylvia Pamboukian, is that with this novel Weiss "encourage[d] readers to view quackery as an external force that can be recognized and eliminated" (148), an optimism certainly also shared by Weiss himself, as a tireless champion of the cause of professionalization.

Perhaps because they were not the book's intended audience, even professionally-minded dentists responded coolly to Vernon Galbray. In The British Journal of Dental Science , a reviewer described Vernon Galbray as

a well-intentioned little book, by which it is proposed to convey in the form of a simple novel, some instructions to the public as to the real character of the quack, or puffing Dentist; but we fear it will scarcely effect its object. It aims at too low a class, and only exposes one or two worn-out dodges of the adventurer [...] We read on, constantly hoping that some good points are going to be made, and finally close the book with a feeling of disappointment. (428)

A second notice, published in a subsequent issue, partially rescinded the original criticism:

Although we said in our August issue that this little work disappointed us because it seemed to aim at too low a class, we by no means meant to imply disapprobation of the book. It is easy to find fault, but not so easy to do better. [562]

In addition to reminding his audience of dentists that it is always easier to tear down than to create, the second, more enthusiastic reviewer added to the positive side of the balance "[t]he author's desire is to warn the public against quack Dentistry by writing a tale that shall prove amusing at the same time that it is instructive." In fact, the author had met this goal so well that the book was recommended for purchase for the edification of one's patients: "we think every Dentist should provide himself with a copy for his waiting-table." Suitably sweetened with amusement, Weiss's educational message stood a better chance of finding a receptive audience. The review's anonymous author commended this approach, explaining that the easy digestibility of the popular novel "excites remark and inquiry" which, in turn, "gives a practitioner the opportunity of supplying whatever deficiencies he may fancy exist in the work." In other words, having Vernon Galbray as a point of contact between patients and dentists allowed the dentists to have their say as well. At the same time, if the form of the popular novel necessarily precluded too much overt discussion of professional and technical matters, no one should find fault for that, for as "the author has explained to us very well," he "avoided entering too much into professional matters, lest the public should fail to take the desired interest in it as a story" (562-563).

Weiss himself intervened directly in this argument, publishing his own notice in the same issue in which the reconsideration appeared, but without revealing his name. "My everyday experience," he wrote "convinces me that nine out of ten of all patients visiting the whole body calling themselves Dentists, good, bad, and indifferent, are totally ignorant of what constitutes the proper manner of conducting a Dental practice." This ignorance led them to so conflate the quack with the legitimate practitioner that "the most worthy members of the profession, in their minds, are classed with the most dishonorable empirics," ie., quacks. "How is this to be prevented?" he wondered. "The only answer that can be returned is, Educate the public. Let them thoroughly understand that all classes of advertisement are disreputable, and that the men who have recourse to exhibitions and show cases should be avoided" (581-82).

Related Material


"Felix Weiss, LDS." The Journal of the British Dental Association 13, no. 6 (June 15, 1892): 364.

[Unsigned notice of Weiss's office address.] The Dental Review 1 (1859): 640.

"[Review of] Vernon Galbray; or, The Empiric. The History of a Quack Dentist. " The British Journal of Dental Science 18, no. 230 (August 1875): 428.

"Vernon Galbray.—Second Notice." The British Journal of Dental Science 18, no. 232 (October 1875): 562-563.

Pamboukian, Sylvia A. Doctoring the Novel: Medicine and Quakery from Shelley to Doyle. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2012.

[Weiss, Felix]. Vernon Galbray, or, The Empiric: The History of a Quack Dentist. London: E.T. Whitfield, 1875.

[Weiss, Felix]. "[Response to review of Vernon Galbray The British Journal of Dental Science 18, no. 232 (October 1875): 581-582.

[Weiss, Felix]. Thurley Tighe; or, The Life of a Student. London: The Dental Manufacturing Company, 1880.

Weiss, Felix. "Dental Empiricism, Past and Present." The Dental Register 15, no. 7 (1851): 407-412.

Weiss, Felix. "On the Use and Abuse of the Vulcanite Base." The Dental Review: A Quarterly Journal of Dental Science 1, no. 4 (October 1864): 25-30.

Weiss, Felix, H. Alban and G. Doran. "A summary of cases where artificial teeth have been swallowed, or have become impacted in the pharynx." London, 1870.

Weiss, Felix. "Notes from a dentist's case-book." British Journal of Dental Science. 1877.

Last modified 1 April 2022