Dental History – A Complete History of Dentistry

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The history of dentistry goes as far back as 7000 BC in the Indus Valley Civilization.

130,000 years ago, the Neanderthals were already practicing dentistry

Photo Credit: University of Kansas News Service

However, a study suggests that 130,000 years ago, the Neanderthals were already practicing dentistry using stone and wooden tools.

Since then, one innovation has ridden upon another to create what you see in dental offices today.

Dentistry has come a long way. As a dental practitioner, understanding the history of dentistry can help you appreciate the importance of innovation and finding ways to improve patient care continually.

And as individuals, this understanding can encourage us to better appreciate our oral health.

This post explores the history and evolution of dentistry, individuals who have made valuable contributions, the current state of the practice, and what we can expect in the future.

Ancient Civilizations and Early Dental Practices

Although there was evidence of dental practice hundreds of thousands of years ago by the Neanderthals, the first documented text related to dentistry became available in 5000 BC.

It was a Sumerian text describing tooth worms as the cause of tooth decay. Interestingly, this theory wasn’t disproved until the 18th century.

Ancient Egypt also contributed largely to the growth of dental care. They spread treatment prescriptions for toothache, infections, and loose teeth through various Egyptian papyruses.

In the 1700s BC, an Egyptian text known as the Code of Hammurabi mentioned dental extraction, although this was done as a form of punishment.

Code of Hammurabi mentioned dental extraction

However, some ancient Egyptian remains show an early form of dental prosthetics (replacing teeth with artificial objects).

Dentistry also made long strides in Ancient Greece, thanks to figures like Aristotle and Hippocrates, who wrote about treating gum disease and decayed teeth, tooth extraction, and stabilizing loose teeth with wires.

The Romans weren’t far behind either. Cornelius Celsus, a Roman medical writer, in 100 BC wrote extensively on oral diseases and dental treatments, including emollients and astringents.

Although there were many texts on dentistry in ancient times, it wasn’t until 1530 that the first book dedicated to dentistry was published.

The Middle Ages and Renaissance Period

The Middle Ages witnessed more buzz on oral health and treatments, and thus dentistry began taking shape as a profession.

Between 600 to 700 AD, the earliest dental amalgams were documented in a medical text by Chinese physician Su Kung. He mentioned the use of silver plates for filling cavities.

Since scholars throughout the Middle Ages broadly discussed dentistry as a part of medicine, most information about the practice was within medical texts.

How Were Dental Issues Treated in the Middle Ages?

If you had any tooth problem in the Middle Ages, you’d see a Barber. And they’ll typically extract your teeth, even though it’s just a toothache.

dental pelican

In the 14th century, Guy de Chauliac likely invented the dental pelican used for performing extractions. This was replaced by the dental key in the 18th century until modern forceps became a thing.

Since dentistry was not an independent profession but a part of medicine, general practitioners (known as Barbers) could conduct dental treatments.

But soon after, there was a need to change that. This was during the Renaissance period.

In 1400, France made several decrees prohibiting lay Barbers from practicing surgical procedures except bleeding, cupping, leeching, and extracting teeth. These professionals were more into routine hygienic services.

Some surgeons underwent more training to perform more complex procedures.

Early Toothbrush

Soon after this time, the need to consider dentistry as an independent discipline arose.

In 1530, the first book solely on dentistry was published. It was titled The Little Medicinal Book for All Kinds of Diseases and Infirmities of the Teeth. It covered topics on dentistry like teeth extraction, drilling, placing gold fillings, and oral hygiene.

Towards the end of the Renaissance, Ambroise Paré, a French barber-surgeon, started filling cavities with lead and other materials. Ambroise Paré is considered one of the first-named surgeons to use dental fillings.

In summary, the Renaissance period saw dentistry advance from a mere sub-discipline of medicine into more of an independent profession.

The Birth of Modern Dentistry

Modern Dentistry was born soon after the Renaissance period.

Pierre Fauchard, a French surgeon, is credited as the Father of Modern Dentistry. A title well-deserved, as he published the first book that comprehensively addressed dentistry as a practice, operative and restorative techniques, and more. He published the book titled “A Treatise on Teeth” in 1723.

But that’s not all.

Although dental tools throughout the Middle Ages were highly primitive, Pierre Fauchard was so skilled that he made immense improvements and improvisation.

The Birth of Modern Dentistry

He would take tools used by watchmakers and jewelers and convert them into dental instruments.

There’s more.

Pierre Fauchard was the one who asserted that acids from sugar are responsible for tooth decay, finally debunking the ancient tooth worm theory. Additionally, Fauchard was the first to introduce the use of dental prostheses. A Father, indeed.

Pierre Fauchard wasn’t the only brains behind modern Dentistry, though.

In 1746, Claude Mouton recommended white enamel for gold crowns for more aesthetic appeal. In 1776, Paul Revere, a dentist, verified the death of Joseph Warren through post-mortem dental forensics when he identified the bridge he had fixed for the now-deceased.

The world’s first dental school (Baltimore College of Dental Surgery) opened in 1840. And 27 years later, the Harvard University Dental School was founded.

At this point, dentistry had become a defined, independent field. And many innovations were rapidly emerging.

Technological Advancement and Innovations

The Industrial Revolution from 1760 to the early 1900s saw the emergence of various innovative dental tools and materials, thanks to the technological advancement of this era.

In 1789, Nicolas Dubois de Chemant got the first patent rights for porcelain teeth.

And by 1790, John Greenwood had constructed the first known dental foot engine. The “how” is pretty impressive: John had modeled the engine after his mom’s treadle spinning wheel.

The 19th century saw gigantic strides in dentistry.

Yet, one thing remained a problem: the excruciating pain during teeth extraction. But Horace Wells, an American dentist, would put that challenge to rest when he discovered the anesthetic properties of nitrous oxide in 1844.

nitrous oxide

Two years later, another American dentist, William Morton, successfully used ether as an anesthetic during a public tooth extraction. The success was a game changer for not only dental procedures but surgical practice as a whole.

The rapid advancement of the dental profession prompted a need for some oversight. And it came. First, Alabama enacted the first Dental Practice Act in 1841.

The American Dental Association (ADA) was formed in 1859. Interestingly, it started as a meeting between 26 dentists one day in Niagara Falls.

Colgate mass-produced the first toothpaste in 1873 and followed up with toothbrushes a few years later. Ironically, although these items were available in the US, most Americans didn’t use them until the end of WWII.

The American soldiers finally returned home with the good oral hygiene practices they had learned abroad. And so, brushing the teeth with toothpaste became the norm.

The Evolution of Dental Tools and Equipment

From the stone, wooden, and other rudimentary tools used by the Neanderthals, man would go on to extract teeth with dental pelicans and forceps 130,000 years later.

But he didn’t stop there.

Due to man’s natural quest to solve problems and make life easier, we now have electric drills, revolutionizing efficiency and accuracy in dental care.

The evolution of dentistry is also thanks to the technological advancements of this era.

When X-ray became a thing in the late 19th century, it allowed dental professionals to detect, diagnose, and treat issues hidden beneath the surface.

What’s more, advancement in material science has afforded us the ability to wear durable dental implants, fillings, and crowns.

Overall, these advancements have significantly improved the quality and patient experience in dental care.

Dentistry in the 20th and 21st Centuries

One of the most notable breakthroughs in dentistry since the 20th century is the introduction of fluoride in the 1940s. Because of it, we now have fewer tartar issues, and cavities, and less need to yank off a tooth.

cosmetic-dentistry

But as you probably know, modern man is not only after restorative dentistry. He wants to look better. Enter cosmetic dentistry.

Thanks to the advent of tooth whitening and porcelain veneers in the 1980s, cosmetic dentistry is now accessible to everyone.

Advanced technologies like 3D models, CAD, and CAM (computer-aided designs and manufacturing) have also made a patient-centered approach possible.

With CAD, any dentist can design a denture just right for a particular patient’s unique jaws.

What does the future hold in the world of dentistry?

Seeing how dentistry has evolved thanks to intelligent minds and technological advancements, the future of dentistry looks bright because there are even brighter minds and greater strides in technology now more than ever.

Final Thoughts

As humans, we have an undying need to improve our world, provide more comfort, and enhance our well-being. This is the foundation on which dentistry was built.

So, whether you’re a dentist, medical researcher, or an entrepreneur looking for an opportunity to advance humanity, there’s so much left to be explored in the field of dentistry. Solve a dental problem, and you have successfully written your name in history.

FAQs

Who was the first dentist?

The first named dentist was an Egyptian named Hesy-Ra, who lived sometime around 2600 BC. We know this because his tomb’s inscription read “the greatest of those who deal with teeth, and of physicians.” This is the earliest reference to someone involved with dental care.

When was the toothbrush invented?

Ancient Egyptians and Babylonians were already brushing their teeth as early as 3000 BC, using sticks with chewed ends. The modern bristled toothbrush as we know it today was first mass-produced in the US by Colgate sometime around 1885.

When was the first dental x-ray used?

The first dental x-ray was used in 1896 by Edmond Kells, a prominent dentist in New Orleans.

When was dental floss invented?

Johnson & Johnson manufactured the dental floss in 1882 and got patent rights sixteen years later.

Who was the first woman to earn a dental degree?

Lucy Beaman Hobbs was the first woman in the world to receive a dental degree. She graduated from the Ohio College of Dental Surgery in 1866.

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