DENTISTS HAVE HAD a bum rap down through the ages. The prospect of a check-up fills all but the kinkiest of masochists with an irrational dread. Garlic-breathed, begowned gents wielding unfeasibly large pliers in their hirsute hands inhabit a particularly nasty place in the collective unconscious. Who could forget Steve Martin's star turn in Little Shop Of Horrors? 'To be a dentist,' he croons, waxing lyrical about the joys of yanking teeth as he prances maniacally about his surgery in crisp linen smock and leather pants. Or Sir Laurence Olivier using dental tools as instruments of torture in Marathon Man. 'Is it safe? Is it safe?' Few would dispute that dentists have an image problem, and that they need some good PR. Something to convince us we have nothing to fear from the high-pitched whine of the drill, the chalkboard shriek of pick on plaque, the joys of gargling, sore-jawed, on your own blood. Something, in other words, quite unlike Dentistry Across The Millennium, a grisly trawl through hundreds of years of white-knuckled oral mayhem which might have been subtitled A Brief History Of Pain. The exhibition is on show at the Museum Of Medical Sciences in Caine Lane until December 31, offering endless weekends of fun for those whose idea of a good time is looking at graphic depictions of gingivitis. Lurid posters of ancient dentures, rotting teeth and pus-filled gums are unlikely to assuage the fear and loathing reserved for dentists, but I can guarantee you won't feel like kissing anybody for a while. Dr Raymond Ma Siu-wing, spokesman for the Hong Kong Dental Association's Dental Health Education Committee, agrees dentists have a public relations problem - one which is completely undeserved, he says. 'I think the problem starts when people are kids,' he says. 'You know, parents make us out as these horrible bogeymen. 'Clean your teeth or the dentist will have to pull them out'. That sort of thing. But I think through education our image is improving. I encourage families to come together for a check-up, it's less scary for kids that way.' And how often should those check-ups be? 'Every six months,' he says. Right. Hands up those who have been to the dentist in the past half year? I thought so. Personally I prefer to defer visits until the galloping pain of toothache threatens to split my skull, hence the riot of caps and amalgam where my teeth once gleamed. Of course, we all have our oral horror stories. My high school history teacher used to regale us for hours with the bloody saga of his dry extractions. My current personal favourite involves the removal of four wisdom teeth last year. One of them was impacted, forcing the dentist to smash it into four separate pieces which, even under local anaesthetic, didn't tickle. Then there was the time I bit into a soft white piece of bread only to encounter something hard enough to crack one of my molars clean in half. And did I mention having a deep cavity drilled without anaesthetic? An experience which for intensity - if not duration - of pain must give childbirth a run for its money. Spare a thought for the dentists, though. It can't be much fun peering into people's mouths all day. The story, perhaps apocryphal, runs that dentists have the highest suicide rate of any profession. 'Certainly it's a stressful profession,' says Ma. 'Every half hour, it's like a new project. You have to examine the patient, gather information, formulate a treatment and then execute it. I believe that abroad, it's true the suicide rate is high. 'But in Hong Kong, I cannot recall anyone committing suicide because of the profession.' He adds a note of reassurance for those worried about dentists with halitosis or great hairy paws. 'All dentists are required now to wear masks and gloves.' A browse through the exhibition makes one exceedingly glad to be alive at the dawn of the 21st century, as opposed to, say, 1860, when the dentist would take to your teeth with a 'bow drill'. The thing looks like it would be more at home slung over Robin Hood's shoulder. Landmarks in dental advances are noted: Pierre Fauchard's publication of The Surgeon Dentist in 1728. Josiah Flagg inventing the first dental chair with adjustable headrest in 1790. Then there are pictures of oddities such as George Washington's dentures, which make those clacking plastic novelty-shop teeth look sturdy. Napoleon's toothbrush resembles something you'd use to brush dandruff off your coat, and an Egyptian bridge is cobbled together from carved ivory and wire. The ancients blamed decay on the tooth worm - a mutant cousin, perhaps, of the tooth fairy. Wearing the fang of a lion or wolf around your neck was said to ward off toothache, although in China they preferred to burn written adages then drink the ash with water. In Brazil, Cambodia, Indonesia and Mexico, comely maidens filed their teeth to points, a sure guarantee against being asked to perform oral sex. Ma counts tooth implants among the recent dental breakthroughs. 'We used to replace missing teeth with dentures or bridges, which would damage the healthy teeth. Now we can implant a titanium post into the bone on to which we screw a false tooth.' There are about 2,000 dentists practising in Hong Kong, he says, with more than 60 new graduates from Hong Kong University's dental school each year. 'It's a lot different from when I started 20 years ago,' says Ma, 'when there were only a handful of qualified dentists and lots of quacks practising in places like the Kowloon Walled City.' Dental health in the SAR is still poor compared with Western countries, with tetracycline-stained teeth, from children's cough medication, and gum disease common. 'We've only really started proper education since the 1970s, so there's a lot of catching up to do,' he says. 'A lot of people still don't even know how to brush their teeth probably.' Worried parents of sweet-scoffing youngsters might consider a quick family trip to the museum. It will probably give them nightmares, but it's a sure bet they'll start brushing and flossing.