History of Dentistry

by Salome Tsikarishvili

Dentistry is one of the few medical professions in which the eyes are sufficient, which may be why it was one of the first practices to be developed.

While the workings of the inner body were too complex for early humans, they were able to diagnose teeth and other issues in our mouth without much technology or tools. However, the beginnings of dentistry are still nothing like the profession we think of today.

Ancient History

Science and medicine were linked with magic and superstitions for centuries. So as people began paying attention to their teeth, they viewed it as a spiritual practice. It wasn’t until 5,000 B.C.E. that descriptions related to dentistry and tooth decay were recorded.

A Sumerian text from this era tells the imaginative story of tooth worms causing dental decay. This was dispensed commonly until the 1700s and is still sometimes used as imagery to explain cavities to kids.

Those who have a fear of modern-day dentists would never want to step foot in a dentist’s office before 1500 C.E. The tools and methods seem horrific and nearly torturous compared to modern practices.

The first dentists were barber-surgeons who cut your beard and treated your teeth at the same time. They were responsible for bleeding procedures, cupping, leeching, giving enemas as well as extracting teeth.

Due to the lack of anesthesia, teeth were pulled out without any mercy and extraction was a painful procedure.

(Picture above is a 17th-century depiction of a farmer at the dentist)

Ancient India had the most developed dentistry at the time. Their treatments included encouraging people to brush their teeth with a paste and a soft shrub, as well as recommending people to dentists for different procedures such as dental fillings for example.

The tools that survived resemble the ones we use today in our own practice. They still were not up to the standards of the modern-day but they were much more developed and helpful than what the rest of the world had at the time.

As agriculture boomed, tooth decay became more prevalent. The increase in sugar consumption caused teeth to rot faster but people had no idea where the problem was coming from.

The extent of tooth decay worsened even more after the Age of Exploration as the expansion of sugar cane farms brought the hidden evil of greatly available sugar alongside the obvious evil of far-spread slavery.

In the 1530s a book entirely dedicated to dentistry was published. It covered different practices in the profession as to how to practice oral hygiene, tooth extractions, and to drill teeth and place gold fillings.

In Rome, they had figured out how to make golden crowns and teeth prosthetics which did not help to prevent per se but did help once the damage was done. This is the moment where dentistry began to separate as its own practice. Until this point, there was no guide book for an aspiring dentist, nevermind a textbook or a class.

By the 1700s, dentistry had become a more defined profession. Pierre Fauchard, a French surgeon published his book, The Surgeon Dentist, which was the first to detail a system for caring for and treating teeth.

Fauchard, truly the celebrity of modern-day dentistry, was also the one who introduced the practice of dental fillings and identified the acids from sugar as the leading cause of tooth decay. He introduced better pliers for pulling teeth that didn’t damage the gums and an early form of braces to straighten one’s teeth.

French dentists created dentures as well but didn’t have quite the right idea yet: many of the teeth used to make them came from poor people who sold their own teeth for money or even graves. Although not used with proper tools, it was a novel idea for their time.

However, the French stopped being the leading experts in dentistry when the French Revolution threw them into chaos and the United States began to lead in dentistry advancements.

In 1868 the first university associated with dentistry, Harvard Dental School, was founded and the practice became more regulated. Barber-surgeons faded out as they needed a certificate to practice dentistry, and dentists became a more recognized and esteemed profession. Offices resembling modern-day dentist’s offices opened up.

(1st Picture: Early dental chair in Pioneer West Museum in Shamrock, Texas; 2nd Picture: Operating Room in Dentists Parsons Office. 1993.89.1.17)

The tools themselves also advanced. Away went the sharp spoon used to carve away the damaged part of the tooth and in came the electronic drill which made the process much less painful than a spoon hacking at your tooth.

Even as dentistry moved forward, the dentist’s office was still synonymous with extreme pain. In 1845, the first attempt at an anesthetic was made by Dr. Horace Wells. He performed surgery with nitrous oxide to show his colleagues he had found a solution to the pain aspect of the procedure.

Unfortunately, the patient cried out in pain and discredited Wells, although he later admitted he had felt no discomfort during the procedure. In 1846, another doctor by the name of Williams Morton gave a successful anesthetic demonstration.

He used ether rags, a much-needed anesthetic that became commonly used by dentists. It was a lesser evil in a time when even cocaine was suggested as an injectable anesthetic.

Dr. Wells proved to have a better solution, but only in modern times. Properly administered, nitrous oxide - more commonly known as laughing gas - should use a machine to set up a mask so that the amount of sedative inhaled can be monitored closely.

This is a luxury the early dentists did not have, which is why ether rags took on instead in the 1840s. The laughing gas returned to practice again after the 1870s when the ether-gas inhaler was invented.

Today, dentists mostly use little quantities of it with kids to lessen their anxieties about being in the chair. According to some dentists, most procedures with this anesthetic are more about ensuring that the patient is comfortable rather than a medical “need”.

(Picture above shows a satirical image from 1830 showing laughing gas being administered to women)

Dentistry has continued to advance to the complicated profession it is today. Although much of modern society makes regular trips to the dentist, it is sometimes forgotten how important oral care is for overall health.

For example, in World War II, soldiers died from the lack of proper oral hygiene because the blood vessels and systems in our mouths impact the whole body.

Teeth problems left unchecked may move to the brain since the nerves are so close to each other and an infection may travel from the mouth through the bloodstream and cause a heart attack.

Our body is a complicated system and everything in it is connected in some way. While we take for granted our dental hygiene today, and often only think about it as a goal for white teeth, we should remember the pain-ridden history of tooth problems and those people who worked to end this pain and develop the practice of dentistry.


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