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John Mew is a 91-year-old orthodontist from the United Kingdom. His face is long and narrow; his hazel eyes rest in deep sockets. Atop his head he wears a yellowing toupee, its presence betrayed by a fringe of talcum-white hair poking out at his ears. In his youth, Mew navigated the British Isles as a competitive sailor, raced Formula One cars and modeled period costumes for the BBC; now he walks with a cane, but he’s still vigorous. He lives alone in a castle of his own making, which sits upon a man-made lake in a secluded forest in southeast England. When I visited him there last March, he ushered me across a reedy moat and into the kitchen. Walking through the home, which he built in the 1990s, we passed by a medieval drawing room with intentionally slanted walls and climbed staircases in a turret, whose stone steps Mew had sanded down unevenly in hopes of lending them the appearance of age. In a dining room he called the Great Hall, grotesques protruded from oak beams near the ceiling — all of them carved by Mew himself. He pointed out to me that the earliest carvings tended to have lopsided faces while the latter ones did not, as he’d refined his technique on the fly. “It’s all part of the ambience,” he told me, grinning. “Why do crooked things look better?”
But if crookedness lends a castle its beauty, it does the opposite to a face — and nothing concerns Mew more than the proliferation of ugly faces, which he considers a modern epidemic. For the past 50 years, he has championed an unorthodox cure, based on a theory about the cause and treatment of crooked teeth, which he calls “orthotropics.” If correct, Mew’s theory would upend many of the fundamental beliefs of mainstream orthodontic practice.
Traditional orthodontic teaching explains crooked teeth mostly through genetics: We inherit the alignment of our bite from our parents, just as we inherit almost any other trait. Mew does not believe this. Instead, he sees crooked teeth as a symptom of a sweeping, unrecognized health crisis. Changes in our lifestyle and environment since the 18th century, Mew contends, are inducing our jaws to grow small and recessed. The teeth do their best to come in straight, but our misformed faces cause them to twist and turn and compete for space. As a result, we’ve been robbed not only of tidy smiles but also, Mew says, of the well-defined faces that were the birthright of our ancient ancestors, and which Mew regards as the mark of true beauty.
Since the late 1970s, Mew — later joined by his 51-year-old son and fellow orthodontist, Mike — has treated patients in his practice in the London suburbs. Using nothing more than palatal expanders, dietary changes, the force of the tongue and an appliance the family invented called the Biobloc, the Mews claim that they can counteract the effects of modernity while children are still growing. Where traditional orthodontists focus most of their efforts on straightening teeth, Mew says his aim is to “save the face.”
The Mews have enraged the orthodontic community with the caustic, uncompromising way they’ve promoted their theories. They and the coterie of nontraditional practitioners who follow them often occupy the furthest reaches of the orthodontic fringe, written off for decades as a small but troublesome band of cranks and kooks. They almost never speak at mainstream conferences. Their papers, if they publish them, tend to appear in obscure, fourth-rate journals or profit-driven industry magazines. British and American orthodontic researchers told me that nearly every claim the Mews have put forth is wrong. Kevin O’Brien, a leading academic orthodontist in the U.K., described their work to me as “mostly discredited.” When I mentioned Mew to a prominent American orthodontist, he cut me off. “John Mew is an idiot,” he said. “A total idiot.”
To the orthodontic community’s frustration, however, the Mews’ beliefs have begun filtering into the public consciousness. Exiled from academia, John and Mike have taken to spreading orthotropics online, particularly on their YouTube channel. In the process, they’ve become popular among incels, the “involuntary celibate” young men who congregate online and who explain their lack of romantic success through a toxic and misogynistic ideology. As the incels touted the Mews, elements of the alt-right joined in, all of them sharing theories about idealized male beauty that closely overlap with the Mews’ own. In 2018, after years in obscurity, orthotropics (rebranded by incels as “mewing”) leapt into the mainstream, the subject of discussion on alternative-health forums and beauty vlogs. Mike and John’s YouTube videos have now drawn in millions of viewers, a substantial percentage of them young women.
In virality, the Mews have lost some control of their idea. On YouTube, vloggers with hundreds of thousands of followers have promoted orthotropics — a therapy intended only for young children — as a beauty treatment for adults. The Mews have responded not by telling their newfound fans they’re wasting their time, but by beginning to treat a select group of adult patients to “see what’s possible,” as Mike told me.
Despite the scientifically uncharted nature of this endeavor, neither had much doubt about the likelihood of success. As John swore the first time he and I spoke, “Every single face treated with orthotropics will be good-looking.”
Since his youth, John Mew has obsessed over what distinguishes beautiful faces from plain ones. He readily volunteers that his own face falls into the latter category — a realization that dawned on him at age 17, when he overheard a girl describe him as “the boy with the very long face.” This confirmed a thought that had struck him some time earlier, walking along a roadside in his hometown in Kent: He tended to hang his mouth open; maybe the downward pull of his facial muscles had helped narrow and lengthen his jaw bones. After dental school, in the 1950s, John worked as an assistant to an orthognathic surgeon, who advanced people’s jaws to improve their appearance. He told me that he would examine specimens in museums, and from this he deduced that jaw deficiencies and malocclusion — a misaligned bite — were nonexistent in the archaeological and animal records. And so he began to think about what had given rise to them, and how they might best be cured. He trawled the literature for forgotten theories on facial growth. He obtained access to cadaver skulls and analyzed them, with particular focus on what he sees as the face’s most important bone: the maxilla.
We tend to talk about the “jaw” in the singular; the image in our mind is of the lower jaw — the mandible — and it’s not hard to understand why. The mandible is the face’s mobile bone, opening and closing whenever we chew, speak, yawn, sing. By contrast, we see the upper jaw — the maxilla — as a fixed part of the skull that simply holds the upper teeth. But the maxilla is actually a separate bone of its own. And in our earliest years of life, the maxilla is hardly more connected to the skull than any other facial bone — a fact upon which Mew became fixated.
He came to believe that nearly all malocclusions, even the most severe overbites, were an illusion — the main deficiency lay not in the mandible, as the orthodontists attested, but in the maxilla. “The orthodontists assumed that, because the mandible looks like it’s back, then the maxilla must be in the correct position,” Mew told me. But the jaws grow as a pair, their relative positions partly determined by the placement of the upper teeth. Any deficiency in the lower jaw, Mew believes, is actually a side-effect of a less obvious deficiency in the upper jaw. In Mew’s telling, this is how modern faces begin to degrade. If the maxilla doesn’t grow forward or wide enough, the mandible adjusts backward and down, so that the chin recedes and the face appears to lengthen. An undersize maxilla will not push the cheekbones to full prominence, according to Mew, and bags may crop up under the eyes; the cartilage of the nose, lacking support, may hinge downward on the nasal bone, making the nose seem large and “hooked.” Over all, Mew says, the face will be not only plain, but in many cases so flat as to look “melted.”
Mew thought the origins of poor growth could be found in the Industrial Revolution. The rise of processed foods — beginning with the invention of canning in the early 1800s — softened diets to the point that the masseter muscles barely had to do any work when chewing. Without the strain of the facial muscles working against the mandible and maxilla, children’s bones no longer grew as thick as they once had. And even more important, in Mew’s eyes, as people moved into cramped, polluted cities, they developed allergies that stuffed their noses and led them to breathe through their mouths, which Mew believes distorted their jaws.
Mew felt the cure, then, must lay with a diet of hard foods, and with the tongue, which he says should sit at rest in the roof of the mouth, acting as a kind of muscular scaffold for the growing maxilla. If he could figure out a way to get young patients to toughen up their diets and keep their lips shut while they were still growing, he thought he could cure malocclusion without braces and put industrialized faces on the right path of growth.
Throughout the 1970s, he tested his theories on his own children. His first son, Bill, did poorly — he suffered from severe allergies and had so much trouble keeping his mouth shut that John resorted to hypnosis. Though Bill disputes this, John says he created a headband with a spike that poked his son’s chin anytime he parted his lips. His third child, Rosie, was put through an opposite experiment: Curious about the effects of a soft diet on facial growth, John instructed his wife to serve her puréed foods in a bottle until she was 4 years old. (“I had teeth growing one in front of the other,” Rosie told me. “I was a really, really ugly little kid.”) It was the middle child, Mike, who became John’s orthotropic masterpiece, the “success” evident as they sat side by side on the edge of the lake at the castle: Where John’s face is thin and oblong, Mike’s is wide and short, his chewing muscles so large that you can see them flex.
In 1981, John published his theory in The British Dental Journal, hoping to spur an orthodontic revolution. But the response was frigid. As he recounts in his unpublished memoir, one reviewer simply wrote: “We might as well discuss whether the moon is made of green cheese.” Five years later, still indignant over the article’s rejection, he detailed his ideas in a self-published book, on the cover of which he printed a gold-embossed Italian quotation: “Eppur si muove” — “and yet it moves,” the defiant words Galileo is said to have spoken following his trial for heresy. He then gave up traditional dentistry and committed himself to orthotropics full time. For the next 30 years, he treated a small but loyal group of patients at his unassuming clinic in the south London suburb of Purley — only stepping down in 2017, at age 89, when the General Dental Council took away his license.
John told me the revocation stemmed from a deliberately provocative advertisement he had published, which accused the orthodontic community of perpetrating “an illegal scam” on patients with their treatments. But he had also been accused of failing to protect a patient’s personal information and of malpractice, which I pointed out. A mother alleged, among other things, that he pursued a treatment on her daughter after she withdrew consent. John denies the allegation, blaming ineffective legal counsel for the loss of his license. Still, ever since, he has been stuck in the castle, feuding about orthotropics on Facebook.
In his 30s, after an aimless decade partying around Europe and working as a traditional dentist, Mike decided to follow in his father’s footsteps. He trained in orthodontics in Denmark and soon joined John at the Purley clinic. If John projects the measured demeanor of a Victorian naturalist, then Mike comes off as a product of the internet age, his words pouring out in half-sentences and overlapping thoughts.
Staff members often seemed flustered by Mike’s frenetic energy, but his command of the clinic has been an unequivocal boon for orthotropics. Since 2018, under his direction, interest in the clinic has exploded, most of it driven by the rise in viewership for his YouTube videos. Originally, the YouTube channel was just a way to game search-engine results — the first videos answered basic dental questions, with titles meant to lure new patients from Google. But eventually Mike grew frustrated, feeling he had failed to speak hard truths to the people who clicked through. In 2012, he started posting the videos he actually wanted to share — sermons on what he considers the true causes of crooked teeth.
In many of his videos, he wears blue scrubs, lending him a clinical authority; even when the words are carefully scripted, he keeps his tone natural to ensure the material is accessible. He talks about tongue posture, recounts patient success stories, calls out the orthodontic establishment and teaches viewers to see the countless ways their faces have grown wrong. With the help of a small team, he and John began regularly putting out videos meant to show viewers the threats to health and beauty they see in traditional practice, warning them that their lives could be ruined by the decision to sit in an orthodontist’s chair.
Almost all of John’s patients came from within England, but Mike’s hail from much farther afield — the Netherlands, Finland, Spain, the United States. According to Mike, one family from Switzerland flew their children in on a private jet twice a month, while a father living off the coast of Estonia traveled by ferry, bus, plane and train to have his daughter treated. During my week at the clinic, hundreds of emails flooded in, most of them from YouTube viewers seeking advice on tongue posture. Demand for John’s typo-riddled 2013 magnum opus on orthotropics, “The Cause and Cure of Malocclusion,” meanwhile, has skyrocketed; copies sat stacked around the office, waiting to be sent to practitioners in Taiwan, Germany and Saudi Arabia.
There would most likely be no interest in orthotropics today were it not for an email Mike received some time around the spring of 2012, inviting him to speak about facial growth at an event in London called the 21 Convention, featuring speakers from all corners of the so-called “manosphere”: pickup artists, Navy SEALs, fitness influencers and men’s rights advocates. The organizers had come across Mike’s work and felt he had something to offer. Mike says he arrived at the lecture without looking into it and was surprised to find a room full of young men, desperate for his advice on how they could improve their looks. In his talk, Mike compared facial growth to bodybuilding. “I said bodybuilders understand the work and effort they need to put into building their physiques, but we don’t do the same for our faces,” he recalled. He told the young men that through persistence and proper tongue posture, every one of them could become more attractive. At the end, Mike says that attendees mobbed him, and he had to be ushered out.
Mike mostly forgot about the event. But in June of 2014, a user going by the name of the Orthodontist — Mike says it wasn’t him — posted a video of the speech on a message board called Sluthate, a central gathering point at the time for incels. (That same year, Elliot Rodger, a member of Sluthate’s precursor forum, killed six people in California with the stated intention of instigating a “War on Women.”) Many self-identified incels have a highly mechanistic understanding of human relationships and believe they can improve their station in the sexual hierarchy through a practice called “looksmaxxing”: enhancing one’s sex appeal through weight lifting, skin and hair treatments and even plastic surgery. The Orthodontist’s recommendation was clear: The Mews’ orthotropic techniques could be an important addition to the toolbox. But the theory also had a deeper allure. Like the movements against vaccines or circumcision or GMOs, orthotropics spoke to its newfound adherents’ reactionary desires, affirming their skepticism of authority and faceless establishments; promising to restore a stolen masculinity; and recounting a simple but exhilarating narrative that pitted modernity against the best interests of the human race.
Unknown to the Mews, users on Sluthate began talking about trying orthotropics on themselves. Eventually their discussions caught Mike’s attention, and — grateful to have an audience — he ventured onto Sluthate and offered to hold a Q. and A. Questions came in from users with names like BetaGayFace and IncelExecutioner, which Mike answered in an awkward YouTube video. Before long, support began arriving from ideologically proximate directions. Mike especially appreciated the words of Marcus Follin, a Swedish bodybuilder and ethnonationalist vlogger who calls himself the Golden One. In a popular video, the Golden One explained to his 100,000 subscribers how “mewing” could help return vigor and good looks to modern men. After the British Orthodontic Society expelled Mike, the Golden One rallied his followers to spread mewing videos in order to combat Mike’s orthodontic “adversaries,” who he said had a “vested interest” in silencing the Mews.
In 2015, inspired by his online followers’ before-and-after photos, Mike decided to begin treating a select group of adult patients who had reached out to him. During the days I spent with him at the office, a few of these men, all of them in their 20s or early 30s, came through. Most claimed ignorance of the incel forums, but occasionally their language betrayed familiarity with some of those communities’ fixations. Many mentioned, only half in jest, that they’d been “red pilled” by the Mews. Nick, a 29-year-old mechanical engineering doctoral student from Greece with an oval face framed by slick black hair, believed men split themselves into two camps early in life: muscular, strong-jawed athletic boys who dominate social life; and studious boys whose late nights in the library leave them with hunchbacks and weak jawlines. He said he fell into the latter camp, but didn’t think he belonged there. “You give the impression you’re submissive,” he told me, “which I’m not.”
Nick blamed his childhood orthodontist for his predicament. At age 13, after having his teeth pulled and braces put on, he noticed with horror that his face was changing. He asked to have the braces removed, but the orthodontist and his parents said it was all in his head. He now believes his braces forced him to mouth-breathe, narrowing his upper jaw and contributing to his sallow appearance and recessed chin.
After seeing the Mews’ YouTube videos in 2016, he reached out to Mike, who invited him in for an evaluation. “He said, ‘Let’s see if you do have those problems you think you have, or if it’s just in your mind,’” Nick recalled. As Mike analyzed his face, Nick said, “I was fascinated — he was telling me things that years earlier I had told my parents.” Nick faulted mainstream orthodontists for just “memorizing answers from a book”; the Mews, by contrast, offered a radical skepticism of received wisdom — and absolute clarity in their explanations. “There are no hidden meanings or complicated alchemies that people are hiding from us.” By the time I met him he’d been in treatment for almost two years, and looking at his progress photos, I saw no differences. When I asked Mike to point out what he saw, he gestured vaguely at Nick’s cheeks and said, “It’s subtle.”
After Nick left, Mike and I crossed the road for lunch at a pub. Without looking at the menu, Mike said he already knew what he was getting: “The creamy risotto.” I wondered if I should order a chewier dish, but realized there was probably no point: As Mike had explained, his massive jaws were a product of childhood chewing; hard foods couldn’t do much for the jaws of a grown adult. I settled on the shepherd’s pie, and when our meals came — each a porridgelike pile of mush — I noticed that we both reached for our spoons instead of our forks.
As we ate, Mike launched into a rhapsody about the stardom orthotropics was bringing him. He was headed to California soon, and hoped to have an audience with Joe Rogan. He worried that some orthodontists in America were trying to supplant him. He marveled at the bizarre fervor of his fans. The praise streaming in from around the world had given him the confidence to speak openly about long-held ambitions. He saw himself as an heir to the great scientific innovators of the past, none of whom he held in higher esteem than Charles Darwin. As we went to pay the bill, he handed me a two-pound coin he’d been keeping in his wallet. Turning it over, I saw that the portrait on the back depicted Darwin, in profile, staring into the eyes of a chimpanzee. Mike took it back and put it away, saying, reverently, that he couldn’t bring himself to spend it.
When I spoke to traditional orthodontists about the Mews’ claims, they were universally annoyed that these ideas were catching on with the public. Some were scandalized that John, who is not an academic, signs his correspondence with the title “professor” — an honorific he has claimed since holding a two-year visiting professorship at a university in Romania. (He has also identified himself as “the clinical director of the London School of Facial Orthotropics”; the school’s campus comprises a bare conference room on the second floor of the Purley clinic.) The orthodontists stressed that no one had ever conducted a credible study of orthotropics, and so all of the Mews’ claims of its efficacy were unproved. They pointed to studies that they said showed that treating patients young does not lead to better outcomes. They laughed at John’s obsession with the tongue and the maxilla. But they also admitted, cautiously, that the field hadn’t properly answered important questions, leaving space for the Mews’ contrarian theories to gain purchase among people who’d found traditional treatment unsatisfying.
In the early days of orthodontics, debate raged over what the focus of the field should be. Some practitioners aimed simply to straighten the teeth, while others argued that orthodontists should look beyond the mouth and try to shape the face as a whole. In 1900, Edward Angle, the father of modern orthodontics, drew a connection between malocclusion and good looks: “One of the evil effects of malocclusion is the marring or distorting of the normal facial lines,” he wrote, describing the “vacant look” and “undeveloped nose and adjacent region of the face” he saw in many patients. The tongue and cheeks, Angle hypothesized, played a powerful part in achieving orthodontic “balance.” But other orthodontists saw it differently, believing that the most they could do was extract teeth and then straighten the smile. The debate largely ended in the 1930s, when clinicians began inventing the first cheap, reliable braces — methods of aligning the teeth that were so effective they induced a kind of awe in British and American practitioners, and mostly sidelined the proponents of facial-growth orthodontics.
In the rush to fix people’s smiles, however, troublesome facts about straightening teeth were minimized or ignored — most significant, orthodontia’s astounding rate of relapse. From the early 1960s to the early 2000s, researchers at the University of Washington collected records from more than 800 patients who’d had their teeth straightened to see how they had fared. Orthodontists had long assumed that patients’ teeth shifted slightly but then “stabilized” after the braces came off. But the University of Washington researchers were shocked to find that fully two-thirds of patients’ teeth went crooked again after treatment. When I asked Robert Little, a co-author on those studies, why so many people relapsed, he said orthodontists didn’t fully know. “All we know is it’s happening.” In the Mews’ eyes, the failure to identify the causes of relapse proves that orthodontists fundamentally do not understand the nature of malocclusion.
Unsurprisingly, the orthodontists I spoke to defended their profession against the Mews’ claims. But a few experts granted that the Mews might be getting certain things right. Mani Alikhani, a lecturer at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine and an advocate for scientifically backed orthodontics, noted that issues like rampant relapse rightly sapped credibility from mainstream clinicians. While he thought the Mews’ views were oversimplified, he credited them and their followers with something he considered valuable: calling attention to the role of the lips, tongue and cheeks in shaping the facial bones, which he said had gone understudied. Timothy G. Bromage, an expert on the biology of human facial development at N.Y.U. College of Dentistry, told me that, in his experience, most orthodontists’ education in the science of jaw growth is “woefully incomplete.” During growth, “the lower jaw follows the upper jaw,” Bromage said, so John Mew’s focus on the maxilla made sense.
When the Mews point to high relapse rates and certain other orthodontic shortcomings — like the way braces can damage dental roots — they stand on solid ground. But they are also quick to step onto much shakier territory, particularly in their beliefs about beauty standards. Both John and Mike have spoken extensively on their theories about the facial angles and symmetries they consider most aesthetically pleasing. They do not believe beauty is culturally determined, instead proposing that all humans have an inborn preference for wide, forward-grown faces. A few years ago, John hired an artist to render an image of an ancient person with his vision of ideal facial growth. The result was a strange Nordic-Amazonian woman with a squat face and high cheekbones who bore an uncanny resemblance to Melania Trump. In John’s view, nearly everyone living in industrial societies deviates from this appearance, and deformity has become so rampant as to seem normal. Beautiful people in industrialized societies today are, to the Mews, freakish exceptions — the lucky few who miraculously managed to eat a hard diet and close their mouth as children.
Over the past several years, the Mews have begun posting videos that emphasize a new claim, which they believe is among the most serious medical discoveries in history: Forward facial growth, they say, can increase the size of the upper airway, preventing sleep apnea and its deadly secondary afflictions. (John says that, in recognition of his insights, one of his followers is trying to nominate him for a Nobel Prize in Medicine.) To draw attention to these ideas, Mike told me one day at the clinic, they had devised a new strategy for their YouTube channel. The videos that got them the most viewers, he said, tended to be ones with a focus on celebrity — an analysis of Kylie Jenner’s face titled “How to Improve Cheek Bones” brought in a half-million views alone, and videos on Jude Law, Julia Roberts and Catherine Zeta-Jones garnered attention, as well. Some strike an almost lurid tone. (“I Might Have Destroyed a Girl’s Face,” one announces.) Mike admitted that the new direction was an effort to bring women to the channel in hopes of reaching young mothers. “Use the clickbait to get people in,” he said, “and then they come down the rabbit hole.”
During my week at the clinic, the strategy seemed to be paying off. Early one morning, a slim woman wearing a massive shawl named Ieva arrived in the waiting room with her 7-year-old daughter, Greta, in tow. She’d read about the Mews’ theories online, and now she worried that Greta might suffer from poor facial growth, as well as postural and breathing issues. Bouncing on his heels, Mike ushered them into the exam room and began to analyze the girl. He held a piece of string in front of her face, searching for asymmetries; he looked up her nostrils; he asked her to open her mouth. “Mild crowding,” he said. “And she’s got a bit of an overjet,” meaning her upper incisors stuck out.
“She has nice facial form,” he concluded, “but keep an eye out for her lips.” They were cute and pouty now; if they grew thin, he said, it would indicate growth gone awry.
Sitting on a bench nearby, Ieva asked why so many people had crooked teeth and — as the Mews claimed — long, unattractive faces. “Do you think it’s to do with the fact that babies are given puréed foods?” She worked as a breastfeeding consultant, she said, and knew the importance of holistic approaches to child-rearing. She added that she’d chosen not to vaccinate her daughter, believing that vaccine-skeptical scientists had been silenced by a fearful establishment without a fair assessment of their claims. (Separately and unprompted, John once offered me a defense of the scientist who first popularized the anti-vaccine theory, saying he’d been defamed simply for questioning a consensus. “He’s a chap one should sympathize with rather than castigate,” he said.) Mike then showed Ieva their proprietary device, the Biobloc. It looked like a blue retainer, but on its sides it had two “fangs,” which induce a “Pavlovian response,” he said, by scraping patients’ gums if they hang their mouth open. Ieva turned the device over in her hands, frowning. Mike told her to seek the opinion of two traditional orthodontists, though it was unlikely they would treat a girl so young. By the time an orthodontist was comfortable putting braces on Greta, he said it would be too late — most of Greta’s facial growth would be complete. “These things rarely self-correct,” he warned.
Ieva took her daughter, promising to come back. But Mike had his doubts: “I got the impression she’s not going to push her daughter because her daughter is a little darling,” he told me. People thought he could magically fix their jaws, he said, but “I’m no more than a personal trainer.” They had to be motivated to achieve health and beauty for themselves. If the girl didn’t comply, Mike would know: The Biobloc device has a data-collecting heat sensor that lets him see, on a computer chart, how many hours his patients spend wearing it.
This emphasis on compliance irks the Mews’ critics almost more than anything else, because it allows them to blame their patients for any failures, while taking credit for all successes. John has treated dozens, if not hundreds, of people, and frequently claims he obtained permission to share their photos publicly. Nevertheless, he has only ever revealed a small, self-selected sample of the photos. The best of these before-and-after pictures, on display in the clinic’s waiting room, are undeniably impressive. But I wondered what the many missing photos would show.
In the basement of the castle one day, I came across six plastic bins: Inside were all of John’s patient photos. He seemed surprised that they’d turned up, and when I asked to go through them, he refused. “What would be the point?” he said. “If someone doesn’t look good, I’ll just say they didn’t comply; and if they do look good, I’ll just say they did.” In “The Cause and Cure of Malocclusion,” John writes that he lives by a personal principle: “Try never to make a statement that might one day be proved wrong.” At first, I’d taken this as a commitment to his judiciousness of thought. But as I considered those six boxes, the emphasis shifted to the end of the sentence — “be proved wrong” — and I started to understand why a man who’s spent the majority of his very long life promoting an untested theory might be skittish about the idea of proof.
On my last day with the Mews, I returned to the castle by train. One of Mike’s assistants retrieved me at the station, and we drove alongside rolling, sun-drenched fields. In the historic village of Mayfield we passed a small, cartoonishly slanted Tudor cottage whose facade, it turned out, had been restored by John Mew just a few years before. Sunken clay roads took us deeper into the countryside until we turned a corner and came upon the crooked castle in its hollow.
John made us tea and as we sat on the edge of the lake, he recounted a half-century’s worth of feuds and the sporting feats of his youth, the homemade catapults and jousting tournaments, the German bombers he watched from his bedroom window as a boy. A plump pheasant, perched on a wooden fence up the hill, interrupted occasionally with a screech. Around a young redwood, which the Mews lamented would one day cast the castle in shadow, a dozen peculiar, shaggy brown sheep grazed in the grass. “They’re called Soay sheep,” John said. “The Romans developed the woolly sheep that we have now, and they’re a very artificial type of sheep. But the Soay sheep are very much the same as they would have been in pre-Roman times.”
John was in a combative mood. He said he wanted to consult with his assistant on ways to sue the General Dental Council to have his license reinstated. “I really think we need — for the good of the public and for the future of orthotropics — to nail them somehow,” he said. It was clear he couldn’t bear not to be practicing, to be stuck feckless in the castle posting on Facebook. Iconoclasm, he said, always brought with it ostracism — revolutionary ideas took time to catch on. He knew that he would die without seeing his theories widely accepted. But there was a historical figure whose story gave him hope that one day vindication would come. In a poem written in the late 1700s, shortly before his death, the physician Erasmus Darwin proposed that creatures might, over time, change their appearance to adapt to the world, giving rise to new species. “Everybody thinks it was Charles Darwin who came up with the idea of evolution,” John said, “but it was actually his grandfather who first intuited it.” It took the elder Darwin to dream up the theory — and the younger Darwin to push it forward.
Leaving the castle that evening in the waning springtime light, I already knew how I felt about some of the Mews’ claims — John’s absurd belief, for instance, that unattractive criminals are less likely to reoffend if their faces are made more beautiful. But in the weeks that followed, I experienced a swift, overwhelming change in vision — the kind the Mews’ patients and viewers described undergoing. Suddenly, all around me, people with tiny jaws appeared, their chins merging with their necks, their lips hanging open unconsciously as they read a book in a cafe or stared out the window on the bus. Long faces, tired eyes, crooked smiles. It began to feel as if the Mews might be right on this single but essential point, if on nothing else. Orthodontists’ unwillingness to engage with this claim — that industrialized life was shifting our teeth and reshaping our jaws — showed, at the very least, a confounding lack of curiosity about the causes of the problem they were looking at. If the Mews were right, then the implications were sweeping: Orthodontists had made billions treating patients for a problem that could have been prevented all along.
But I wasn’t sure if I trusted my eyes or not, and I wanted a second opinion. Visiting museums had been crucial in convincing John that something was wrong with our jaws, so I decided to make a visit of my own. On a Friday in August, I met with an anthropologist named Janet Monge in a ground-floor classroom at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia. Monge is a warm and voluble person, with a mane of gray-white hair and an easy smile. Since the early 1990s, she has been the keeper of one of the world’s largest and most geographically diverse collections of ancient skulls, housed at the University of Pennsylvania. The specimens had originally been gathered by the physician Samuel Morton in the 19th century. Monge noted that Morton collected the skulls for racist purposes, measuring the projection of his specimens’ jaws in an attempt to assess their level of civilizational enlightenment. The same large, forward-grown jaws the Mews prize as signs of health and beauty, Morton disdained as markers of inherent cultural and biological inferiority.
The Morton specimens sat in cases all around, peering out at us with enormous, empty sockets and gleaming teeth. In a plastic container, Monge had placed skulls from the Middle East, West Africa, Eastern Europe and beyond. When I asked her if she’d ever seen an ancient specimen with crooked teeth, she didn’t hesitate: “No, not one. Ever.” Most of the skulls in the Penn collection date from a 40,000-year period starting late in the Stone Age and ending around 300 years ago, yet “they all have an edge-to-edge bite,” “robust” jaws and “perfect” occlusion, Monge said.
But then, in specimens from people who lived two centuries ago or less, Monge noted a striking change: The edge-to-edge bite completely disappears, and malocclusion suddenly runs rampant. She pointed to a skull on a nearby shelf — that of a woman who lived in 19th-century North America. Unlike the ancient skulls, this postindustrial woman’s maxilla was crinkled and small; the teeth that remained sat crammed together. “I always told my students, ‘Something happened 200 years ago and nobody has an edge-to-edge bite anymore — and I have no freaking idea why,’” Monge said.
She took the skull of a preindustrial Siberian man out of her container and clicked the mandible into place. The bone was thick; the teeth met so neatly that they appeared pulled from an Invisalign ad. Monge laughed, her open mouth revealing a pair of missing molars. She cradled the skull in her hand. “Isn’t that just perfect?”