The History of Dentistry: We’ve Come So Far

  • Dentistry has come a long way, baby

You would think that very ancient civilizations had terrible oral health, given the lack of dentists, modern tools, antibiotics, or anaesthetics; but that would be a false assumption. The history of dentistry and oral health care goes back much further than many people would think. What’s particularly interesting is that humans didn’t require much in the way of dental care until the dawn of agriculture, roughly 10,000 years ago.

Hunter-gatherers had better oral health than you’d think

Ancient Practices

When humans were hunter-gatherers, a number of factors contributed to their overall oral health. They had a variety of food choices, comprised mostly of plants. This diet was high in fibre that helped naturally “floss” teeth, and low in starches and carbohydrates. As a result, pre-agrarian hunter-gatherers had remarkably healthy teeth.

As humans became settled, their diet shifted to being more heavy in carbohydrates and starches, resulting in a decline in oral health. Yet other factors contributed to the decline as well. One overlooked factor is childbirth. With an increase in population came an increase in birth rate, naturally. Women’s oral health declined due to hormonal changes, mineral deficiencies, and a generally more compromised diet than before. However, the overall decline in all early farmers (male and female), suggests that the denser population and less-varied diets were also major contributors to poor teeth and gums. Necessity is indeed the mother of invention; so when our ancient forebears developed rotting teeth, they began to practice primitive dentistry. 13,000 years ago (at the very dawn of farming) people would scrape and scour teeth in an effort to rid themselves of tooth decay.

As tools became more sophisticated during the neolithic period, so did humanity’s ability to deal with tooth disease. Researchers believe that the first dental drills were used in Pakistan some 9,000 years ago. Scientists discovered human remains with precise 1-3 mm holes in molars; and upon further investigation with a microscope, saw that the holes had concentric ridges that would have been consistent with drilling, not scraping or hammering.

Barber-surgeons looked after teeth -- and could give you a shave, too

Dentistry on the Rise

Fast forward a few millennia, and dentistry really started to carve out a niche for itself. Around 500 BCE, Aristotle and Hippocrates both write about the eruption pattern of teeth, as well as treating decaying teeth, wiring teeth, and tooth extractions. A few hundred years later, the Etruscans started using gold crowns and fixed bridgework.

However, it was France in the 1200s where the Guild of Barbers was first established. They were responsible for bleeding, cupping, leeching, and extracting teeth (and shaving). These barber-dentists participated in a regulated guild; at one point, they were divided into two groups: one who were trained to do surgical procedures, and another — called lay barbers — who could only do leeching, cupping, or extracting.

A few centuries later, the Little Medicinal Book for All Kinds of Diseases and Infirmities of the Teeth” was published in Germany. It was written specifically for barbers and surgeons who treated dental issues, and covered topics such as drilling, extraction, gold fillings, and the all-important oral hygiene.

Modern dentistry brought relief to many sufferers

The Dawn of Modern Dentistry

In 1728, the “Father of Modern Dentistry,” Pierre Fauchard of France, published his treatise “The Surgeon-Dentist, or Treatise on the Teeth.” In it, Fauchard described the foundations of oral anatomy and physiology. Fauchard had garnered a reputation as a prominent dental surgeon, having trained as a surgeon with the French Navy. He attracted patients from all over the country, and his scientific and comprehensive approach to dentistry laid the groundwork for modern dentistry.

CSI: Paul Revere

An interesting dentistry anecdote from around this time involves the famous Paul Revere, who had placed advertisements in a Boston newspaper offering his services as a dentist. In 1776 Revere verified the death of his friend Dr. Joseph Warren in the Battle of Breed’s Hill, by identifying a bridge that he had constructed for Warren.

1800s and Beyond

Dentistry advanced tremendously from the early 1800s on, particularly in the area of prosthetics and dentures. An Italian physician, Dr. Giuseppangelo Fonzi, developed porcelain teeth.Charles Stent invented the impression compound, which would be important for future dental prosthetics.

The anaesthetic properties of nitrous oxide changed dentistry

One very welcome innovation to come out of this era was the discovery of the anaesthetic properties of nitrous oxide by an American dental practitioner named Dr. Horace Wells. The ability to drill or extract teeth relatively pain-free had a dramatic impact on people’s willingness to have dental work done; and this, of course, had a positive effect on their overall health and wellbeing.

Regulation and Oversight

The first school of dentistry opened in Baltimore in 1840, founded by Dr. Horace H. Hayden and Dr. Chapin A. Harris; and it was here that the Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) was established. The dentistry school merged with the University of Maryland in 1923.

In Canada, a rise in “charlatans” led serious practitioners of dentistry to fight for legislation to regulate the practice; and in 1867, Dr. Barnabas W. Day called a meeting that ultimately led to the creation of the Ontario Dental Association. Eventually Dr. Day and his associates established the Act of Respecting Dentistry (1868), giving the board of directors of the newly established Royal College of Dental Surgeons of Ontario the power to license and regulate dentistry. The Canadian Dental Association was later established in 1902.

The twentieth century ushered in huge advances in dentistry

The Twentieth Century and Beyond

The twentieth century is a blur of progress and achievement in the field of dentistry and oral health:

  • 1913: A clinic for dental hygienists opens in Connecticut, with the majority of the first wave of graduates employed by the Bridgeport Board of Education to clean the teeth of school children. This resulted in a great reduction of caries (cavities) and gave oral hygiene much-needed credence.
  • 1930: The world’s first dental specialty, orthodontics, is founded as the American Board of Orthodontics.
  • 1938: The nylon toothbrush first appears on the market.
  • 1945: Three U.S. cities add sodium fluoride to their public water systems, ushering in the era of water fluoridation.
  • 1949: A Swiss chemist by the name of Oskar Hagger develops the first technique for bonding acrylic resin to dentin (the second hardest tooth layer that lies underneath the outer enamel. It is the part of the tooth that surrounds and connects to the tooth’s pulp).
  • 1950: The first fluoride toothpastes are marketed.
  • 1957: The high-speed drill is introduced in America by Dr. John Borden. It’s an air-driven, contra-angle handpiece with 300,000 rotations a minute and is an immediate success.
  • 1958: The fully reclining dental chair hits the market.
  • 1960: Lasers are employed and approved for soft tissue work. The first electric toothbrush is also developed this year.
  • 1962: Bis-GMA, a thermoset resin complex that is still used in most composite resin restorative materials, is developed by Rafael Bowen.
  • 1989: The first home tooth bleaching kit comes on the market, and ushers in an entire era of aesthetic dentistry — veneers, implants, and other restorative materials gain a significant market share.

Dentistry has made significant progress since the days of the old neolithic bow drill. Advances in laser dentistry, better anesthetic techniques, top-notch training, and continuous research all contribute to providing patients with the best care in dentistry in the history of the planet.

And that should give everyone a reason to smile.

Advances in dentistry help everyone’s overall health

For an excellent family dentist in London, ON contact Cosmo Dental Care at (519) 659-2767 to make an appointment; our friendly team is ready to help. We are open six days a week, and can make early morning and evening appointments to fit your busy schedule. We provide total dental care for the whole family, including implants, veneers, and teeth whitening.

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