Gutta Percha: from reinforcing football boots to filling root canals

In Victorian times it is certain that some teeth were dislodged by reinforced football boots during a game of ‘rugger’, so it a happy symmetry that today’s modern teeth are protected by the same material that made those boots so sturdy. That material is Gutta percha and the story begins with the launch of the Football Association in 1863.

The instigation of the Football Association  is celebrated as the seminal moment when Association football was born. The meeting at the Freemason’s Tavern in Great Queen Street was a coming together of the ball-carrying exponents (Rugby) and the ball-dribbling community. The main point of contention, between the two groups, was over ‘hacking’, otherwise known as the wanton kicking of your opponents.

The FA meeting was heavily influenced by a letter from Sheffield FC. The Secretary dealt with matters of correspondence which included a long communication dated 30th November from the Mr. William Chesterman, club secretary of Sheffield FC. He enclosed a subscription for enrolment but also put forward the Sheffield point of view that: ‘the Association’s proposed rules permitting running with the ball and hacking were directly opposed to football and were more suggestive of wrestling.’

Ebenezer Cobb Morley and Arthur Pember listened to the petition from Sheffield and hacking was prohibited in rule number 10, of the new laws:

“Neither tripping nor hacking shall be allowed, and no player shall use his hands to hold or push his adversary. “

and rule number 13 states:

“No player shall be allowed to wear projecting nails, iron plates, or gutta percha on the soles or heels of his boots. “

So, what is Gutta percha?

Gutta percha is a naturally occurring latex or rubber from Malaysia that players would apply to their football boots to make them harder and less forgiving in the tackle. In Victorian times Gutta percha became a household word as it was used for many domestic and industrial purposes. The Malaysians had used it for centuries to make knife handles and walking sticks, but in 1843 it was classified as a natural thermoplastic and was used in great quantities as an insulator of underwater cabling and other electrical cabling. By 1851, 1.5 million kilograms was being imported into Britain to make furniture, jewellery, pistol grips, canes and walking sticks. Gutta percha also revolutionised the design of golf balls in 1860, which became known logically enough as the ‘gutty’. So, it is no surprise that it was the readily available material of choice, in the 1860s, to weaponise your football boots in anticipation of a manly game of Rugby.

The widespread use of Gutta percha declined in Britain with the advent of Bakelite in 1907, but it was in the field of dentistry rather than the football field that it would retain its superiority. In 1867 Gutta percha was first used for root canal filling, but it been used in dentistry from as early as 1847 by Edward Truman. If you have been unfortunate enough to suffer with a tooth abscess, you will know that after they are cleaned and disinfected, the roots are filled to prevent reinfection. What you will not be aware of is that sitting in your root canal right now, is the same material that was outlawed by the Football Association 154 years ago; good old Gutta percha.