The Amazing History of Dentistry
Timbercrest Dental Center
Sometimes people think us dentists aren’t aware about where we fall on their “stuff I’d like to spend my time doing” lists…
Oh we know, even if we had a great soundtrack the most soothing voices and a professional masseuse on staff (two out of three ain’t bad, though), there is still a huge list of places you’d rather be.
Why this random episode of introspection, you ask? Well as I was getting ready to go home yesterday, a book fell from the shelf and landed on my desk. With the image that opened up, I assumed it was a book on medieval torture. However, putting it back on the shelf allowed me to see the real title “An Impacting History of Dentistry” by Ivanna Crown.
Paging through the out-of-print text renewed my sense of gratitude for how far the medical science has come. Perhaps it will yours as well. Let’s take a look at the long history of dentistry.
We all have teeth, so it’s no surprise that the first mention of teeth comes from the oldest written language in the world.
The text cites the cause of tooth decay as “tooth worms.” In an effort to not let our imagination give us an image for tooth worms we’re going to move on – Nope, too late.
Brush Like An Egyptian
The Ebers Papyrus (dating back to c. 1550 BC) was the next historical occurrence of recommended dental care. In Cyril P. Bryan’s translation, which you can read here, the following is said about regular dental care:
“As for the teeth, all that these appeared to need from time to time was strengthening which, after all, was not to be wondered at.”
What could be done to strengthen them in Ancient Egypt? Well how about throwing out your Biotene and Colgate and picking up some of the following:
- Powdered fruit-of-the-Dom-palm with honey – rubbed on the teeth as a first measure.
- Incense Verdigris and fresh Lead-Earth – if the first measure was not enough, apparently.
- Pebbles, powdered in honey – for especially tough cases of weak tooth.
Regular brushing consisted of chewing on Crocus plant, whereas ‘Blisters in the teeth’ (presumed to be abscesses) were dealt with by applying a paste composed of Crocus, Incense, Cyprus, Water, Aloe, Onions and other spices.
This knowledge must have been enough to keep the world turning since the next major developments wouldn’t happen for a millennium.
Greece is the Word that You Heard
Between 500 and 300 BC, Hippocrates and Aristotle (the Greek scholar equivalent of Batman and Robin) wrote extensively on the subject of dentistry.
Between the two of them, tooth extraction via forceps, treatment for decay, and even stabilizing teeth with wires (a primitive form of braces) were all documented in detail.
Around 100 BC, neighboring Roman medical writer, Celsus added his thoughts on oral hygiene and stabilization of loose teeth to the medical compendium he scribed.
Just 300 years later, around 200 AD, the Etruscan civilization began practicing dental prosthetics (read: crowns and fixed bridgework).
The Middle Ages
Though the middle ages were not exactly known for their progressive ideas about medicine, they did mark important advancements in dentistry. 1210 AD, for instance, saw the Guild of Barbers established in France. Now before you go calling Great Clips for a filling, note that the barbers of old were different than today.
This guild was not only responsible for your local haircut, but they would also be the ones performing tooth extractions and blood-letting procedures.
300 years later, the first true dental handbook was published in Germany. The Little Medicinal Book for All Kinds of Disease and Infirmities of the Teeth, though not winning the short-title award for nonfiction, provided a knowledge base for barbers and surgeons on dealing with dental maladies.
Its 1530 AD publication provided a written thesis on topics like oral hygiene, extraction, drilling and even placement of fillings (at the time made from gold). While dentistry was not yet a separate medical profession, the wheels were in motion to differentiating the practice from general medicine.
The Times They Are A-Changin’
By the 18th century AD, the well of knowledge on dentistry was deep and being added to frequently. It is in this century that we meet the Father of Modern Dentistry, Pierre Fauchard. Fauchard was a French surgeon who published his most famous work The Surgeon Dentist: A Treatise on Teeth in 1723.
His encyclopedic book outlines a bevy of dental procedures and information including:
- Oral anatomy and physiology (the parts and how they work together)
- Restorative techniques
- Denture construction
With many of his outlined procedures being ahead of their time, Fauchard’s treatise lay the foundation for the kind of dental advances that are still taking place today. Likely working with this information, Claude Mouton described a gold crown and post to be retained in a root canal just 23 years later in 1746.
Beyond the Sea
Modern dentistry was developing at a huge rate in Europe. At the same time, a small series of colonies was growing and developing on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. America recorded her first dentist in 1760 when Englishman John Baker moved to the Pre United States and set up his medical practice.
Around 1770, Paul Revere gained notoriety in Boston by placing advertisements in the newspaper offering his services as a dental surgeon. In 1776, Revere was also at the front line of dental forensics when he identified his deceased friend, Dr. Joseph Warren, in the Battle of Breed’s Hill by the bridge crown he constructed for him.
The first American dental book was The Treatise on the Human Teeth by Richard C. Skinner published in 1801. Hey speaking of the 1800’s, they were a pretty big century for dental advancements.
Dentistry is Fine in Century 1-9
In 1825, for instance, porcelain teeth began to be manufactured commercially by Samuel Stockton. As pioneers of this new technology, his company S.S. White Dental Manufacturing would have this market in their back pocket through the remainder of the 19th century.
Although the first dental chair was invented by Josiah Flagg in 1790, the first reclining dental chair saw the light of day in 1832. James Snell invented this fixture of modern dentistry that had attachments for tools and an arm rest.
Less than a decade later in 1839, the American Journal of Dental Science was started as the world’s first dental journal.
The 19th century also saw the formation of the American Dental Association in 1859 when 26 dentists met at Niagara Falls, New York. Chances are you’ve seen the logo of the still functioning group on a tube of toothpaste or slightly deceptive package of gum (that’s a different blog topic though).
Other firsts for this decade include Lucy Beaman Hobbs becoming the first woman with a dental degree, upon graduating Ohio College of Dental Surgery in 1866.
Dr. Robert Tanner Freeman became the first African-American with a dental degree just three years later in 1969 after graduating from Harvard University Dental School.
The first African-American woman with a dental degree was Ida Gray who graduated from the University of Michigan School of Dentistry in 1890.
Dental practices became optimized in 1883 with the founding of the National Association of Dental Examiners. Founded by members of several states’ specific dental boards, this group began with the goal of standardizing qualifications for dentists to ensure uniform quality across the nation.
Lastly of note for this historic century, the X-Ray camera was invented by German physicist Wilhelm Roentgen in 1895. The next year C. Edmond Kells, a prominent dentist from New Orleans, would take the first dental x-ray of a living human being.
Moving from the Past to the Future
Though it may feel like just yesterday to some of us, the 20th century is now 15 years old. It was also a huge century for dental technology development. Novocain, for instance, was invented by German chemist Alfred Einhorn. It was initially called Procain and served as the first marketed local anesthetic.
The American Board of Orthodontics was founded as the world’s first dental specialty board in 1930 and remains to this day.
On a macro-dental scale, the first nylon toothbrush appeared for sale in 1938 and seven years later in 1945, water fluoridation began its journey to ubiquity when Newburgh, NY and Grand Rapids, MI added sodium fluoride to their water systems. It wouldn’t take long after for fluoride toothpaste to hit the market, with the first one appearing in 1950.
High-Speed Dentistry (which is cool, but probably not as cool as it sounds) evolved in 1957 with John Borden’s invention of a high-speed air-powered handpiece. The device obtained speeds up to 300,000 rpm and helped set the precedent for a lot of your modern dental visit experience.
Only three years later, in 1960, did sit down, four-handed dentistry become popular. This same year the first electric toothbrush was marketed and sold to consumer markets in the United States. The next year, a cordless rechargeable model was developed
If you’ve ever used a home bleaching kit, you have 1989 to thank as the first consumer home tooth bleaching kit hit the shelves then. Along with video technology improving, this would help pave the way for the age of esthetic dentistry. Veneers, bleaching and implants are all popular ways to achieve whiter smiles 25 years later.
The next time you’re sitting with a waterline in your mouth, take just a quick second to think about the reclining dental chair you’re in, or the fact that you hadn’t heard the word “tooth worms” following your x-ray, or the lack of leeches (hopefully) on your chin.
We’re not asking for it to be your favorite thing in the world, but maybe – like us – you’ll appreciate how far the whole thing has come.
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