The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America

An NPR Best Book of 2017 that exposes our oral health crisis and the astonishing role that teeth and oral health play in our society

“Infuses what could be a mundane topic with quirky history, heart-wrenching real-life stories, and prose that is . . . poetic . . . this harrowing book pulls at the heartstrings . . . a must-read for anyone who cares about public health policy.” — Newsday

In this brilliant debut book, hailed by the New York Times Book Review as “a call for sweeping, radical change,” veteran health journalist Mary Otto looks inside America’s mouth, revealing unsettling truths about our unequal society.

Teeth takes readers on a disturbing journey into the role teeth play in our health and our social mobility. Otto “doesn’t just dwell on the numbers,” according to NPR, “she makes what could have been a turgid health policy tome spark with outrage over the stories of people who have suffered.” Her subjects include the pioneering dentist who made Shirley Temple and Judy Garland’s teeth sparkle on the silver screen; an up-and-coming beauty queen awarded thousands of dollars of free cosmetic dental care; and Deamonte Driver, a young Baltimore boy whose death from an abscessed tooth sparked congressional hearings.

Offering “an astute examination of the complex, insular business of oral health care” (Kirkus Reviews), Otto combines searing critique with forward-looking proposals for reform, “sympathetically explor[ing] a range of ideas for improving the current system” (New Republic). Muckraking and paradigm-shifting, Teeth exposes for the first time the extent and meaning of our oral health crisis.


“Mary Otto hits us right in the face—our teeth—with this important book. The lack of dental care for millions of Americans is a national shame. Teeth breaks new ground in the canon of books about poverty. It should be read by anyone concerned about the class divide in the U.S.”
—Dale Maharidge, author of And Their Children After Them, winner of the 1990 nonfiction Pulitzer Prize
“Who eats too much sugar, leading to dental trauma? Primarily the poor. Who cannot sleep because of continuing dental pain and no available dental care? Primarily the poor. Even with Medicare and Medicaid, dental care has remained a stepchild—and these programs are in jeopardy now. ‘The teeth are no match for . . . a life of poverty,’ Otto says. More teeth failure and its consequences are on their way.”
—Peter Edelman
“Mary Otto brings history, policy and painful personal realities together in this compelling and engaging book about our nation’s highly preventable epidemic of oral disease. Teeth should be read by every policy maker and health professional who believes we can and must act to reduce the current barriers to dental care.”
—Louis W. Sullivan, MD, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, 1989–1993, and chairman of the Sullivan Alliance to Transform the Health Professions
“I can’t remember the last time I read a book that so brilliantly yokes physiological, political and cultural systems. Rife with discovery, and a spur to social action, Mary Otto’s book is a beautifully readable and essential testament for these times.”
—Mary Cappello, author of Swallow: Foreign Bodies, Their Ingestion, Inspiration, and the Curious Doctor who Extracted Them
“Mesmerizing and important. Mary Otto’s unflinching work on the miserable state of oral health in America gnaws at you like a toothache.”
—Congressman Jamie Raskin (MD-8)
“Here’s a book that will enlighten you, upset you, and give you hope. I highly recommend it.”
—Bob Herbert, Distinguished Senior Fellow at Demos and former Op-Ed columnist for the New York Times

Goodreads Reviews