The History of Dentistry

Guest December 7, 2012 5
This is a guest post by Shoshana Davis, a freelance contributor for TopDentists.com, the dental resource site of Everyday Health.

Brushing your teeth after every meal, visiting the dentist for cleanings, and having a relatively painless mouth is not just desired but expected in the year 2012. However, that was not always the case. Dentistry has come a long way since its inception and is often overlooked for other scientific advancements.

The earliest history of treating tooth related problems goes all the way back to 7000 BC, where the Indus Valley Civilization shows evidence of treating the mouth for tooth decay. The first method of treatment was bow drills, which were ancient primitive tools used for woodworking and treating tooth problems.

Moving forward into 5000 BC, the Sumerians blamed tooth worms as the cause of any dental issues, with the worms boring little holes in your teeth and hiding out inside. (Reportedly some ancient doctors even mistook nerves as tooth worms and tried to yank them out.  Ouch!)   The idea that a worm traveled through your mouth and was the cause of dental pain lasted until it was proven false in the 1700s. (Yes, you read that right, the 1700s).

In ancient Greece, Hippocrates and Aristotle wrote about treating decayed teeth as well as having teeth extracted to keep mouth pain away. The concept of having a tooth extracted from the mouth through using forceps was often used to treat many diseases into the middle ages.

Interestingly enough, the professionals who were doing these extractions during the middle ages were not medical authorities, but barbers. These partially trained hair cutters began using a “Dental Pelican” in the 14th century and then a “Dental Key” to extract teeth from their patients’ mouths. Both of these tools were similar to and the precursor to modern day forceps. These barbers were not full time dentists, but in fact, their work was focused solely on removing any infected teeth for alleviating pain purposes, not preventive care.

It was between 1650 and 1800 that the concepts behind what we now think of as dentistry got its start. The man behind the science was 17th century French Physician, Pierre Fauchard. He is called “The Father of Modern Dentistry”, and he was the brains behind many of the procedures still used in today’s society. For instance, he was the man behind the thought process for dental fillings, and he also helped to explain that acids from sugar are a major source of tooth decay.

From here, the rest is history. In 1840, the first dental college was opened, called the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery. This led to more government oversight, and eventually regulation through the American Dental Association (ADA).

In 1873, Colgate mass-produced the first toothpaste in a jar, and, just a few years later, in 1885 the first tooth brush was mass produced in America by H.N. Wadsworth. The first real electric toothbrush was produced in 1939, but it was developed in Switzerland.

Surprisingly, most Americans did not pick up on the dental trend to brush their teeth until after World War II. The soldiers stationed abroad brought the concept of good dental health back to the states. Now, most Americans not only focus on the health aspects of keeping their teeth clean, but many are just as concerned with the cosmetic appearance as well. Times have changed!

If you liked this article and the Bonus Teeth Facts below, you might also like:

Bonus Teeth Facts:

  • During the Civil War, not only did the South secede, but the southern dentists did as well. They left the ADA, and formed the SDA (Southern Dental Association) in Atlanta in 1869. They joined back up with the ADA to form the National Dental Association (NDA) in 1897, and, in 1922 when all was forgiven, the NDA became the ADA again.
  • Dental researchers (they do exist) have been surprised to find that there are grooves in the teeth of prehistoric humans that seem to be similar to those caused by current day dental floss and tooth picks.
  • Paul Revere was not only known for warning that the British were coming, but he also trained as a dentist under America’s first dentist, John Baker.
  • It is said that the ancient Chinese were the first to use toothbrushes. They made them from pigs’ necks or used pieces of wood to create “Chew Sticks”.
  • Invisalign braces were first made public in May of 2000, but centuries before, orthodontics were being perfected. Edward H. Angle created a simple classification for crooked teeth in the late 1800s, and that system is still used today. He also started the first school of orthodontics in 1901.
  • Contrary to popular belief, George Washington’s teeth were not actually made from wood. Researchers in Baltimore found that his false teeth included gold, ivory, human, and animal teeth. In that time, horse and donkey teeth were often used to supplement the real thing.
  • Novocain was originally invented around 1905 to be a quick acting anesthesia to use on soldiers during war time. It never quite caught on in that respect, but it was picked up for dental use.
  • One of the first known professional dentists was an Egyptian named Hesi-Re who lived around 3000 BC.  His tomb included the inscription, “the greatest of those who deal with teeth…”
  • If you had a toothache and when to Roman doctor, Archigenes, around 15 A.D., he’d make an ointment of roasted earthworms, crushed eggs of spiders, and spikenard.  Next, he’d drill a hole in the tooth causing you pain and place this ointment inside to relieve it.  Presumably he didn’t get many repeat customers.
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