Dawn of the Dentists
The History of Dentistry Is More than the History of Your Dentist (and it’s Probably More Interesting)
You are sitting in the dentist’s chair.
Your feet are awkwardly dangling off the edge of the sloping seat, your mouth is wide open, and you’re trying to distract yourself by counting the ceiling tiles.
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It isn’t working.
You start wondering how your dentist decided to be a dentist — or, for that matter, how any dentist decided to be a dentist.
Did the first person just say, hey, I think it’d be fun to scrape ancient plant gunk off on that other guy’s teeth?
Well, no one actually knows what the original dentist was thinking, but the history of dentistry is long and interesting enough to keep you distracted through at least a standard cleaning if not an entire root canal.
The history of dentistry might even have you rethinking your long-standing aversion of dental appointments. It will certainly make you appreciate not having to visit a dentist from 7000 BC.
Back Where It All Began
The Indus Valley. 7000 BC.
Located in what is currently India and Pakistan, a bunch of people (at least 9) had holes drilled in their teeth for dentist-related reasons.
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It’s pretty clear based on the location of the hole-y teeth and the non-decayed surrounding tooth area that the holes weren’t for aesthetic reasons, nor were they necessarily associated with tooth decay. These holes may have originally been the earliest known example of dental fillings.
There are enough skulls and teeth with the same type of drill holes that scientists can be sure that this wasn’t an isolated event — the chances of a tooth-focused ancient murderer or grave robber carrying on for over 1500 years is unlikely to say the least.
Archeologists now believe that these tooth holes were caused by the earliest of dentists. Using a flint point and a bow, these ancient dental aficionados were able to create a precursor to the modern drill. Ouch.
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And because of the locations of the graves holding the bored teeth, it’s also pretty clear that not only the richest of the rich were able to receive dental care. Over half of them were female, too, so dentistry was obviously available to anyone who needed or wanted it.
Pretty good start, huh?
Less Dentist, More Myth
A couple thousand years after the genius early drill and filling, the Sumerians had different ideas about teeth.
Also the Egyptians and the Japanese and the Indians and the Chinese.
There are legends in all of these cultures that reference a “tooth worm” that would dig into people’s teeth, causing cavities and all manner of discomfort. Even Homer wrote about the famed tooth worm, spreading the “knowledge.”
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And as uncomfortable as cavities can be, aren’t you glad that the tooth worm isn’t really a thing?
Of Course Egypt Was First: History of Dentistry = History of the World
The first official dentist was, inevitably, Egyptian.
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Hesi-Re, ancient Egyptian, was known as “Greatest of Teeth.” Wouldn’t you be more inclined to go to a dentist who called themselves that?
Hesi-Re was a high official between 2686 BC and 2618 BC. He clearly was pretty awesome at his tooth-work, but while his clients sure walked away shiny, they probably walked away in quite a bit of pain, too.
The primary dental solution during Hesi-Re’s portion of the history of dentistry was to bind teeth together using gold wire. They’d sometimes even puncture holes through teeth to properly affix them. Maybe they were the equivalent of today’s grills?
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Etruscans be Truckin’
Can you imagine asking for (and getting) dentures in 700 BC?
Guess what they were made out of.
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Really, now, what did you think it was going to be?
Sometimes, if the materials were available, they’d take ivory or bone, but usually, they just grabbed teeth from whatever dead thing with teeth was available and relatively close in size and shove those in.
Believe it or not, this was common practice for denture creation through the 1800s. Thank your lucky stars for the wonders of modern technology.
No, not the great dentists.
But great (read: super well known) authors and historians wrote about dentists, too.
Well, they wrote in kind of broad strokes about dentistry.
Okay, they wrote about teeth.
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Aristotle and Hippocrates both wrote about issues with teeth as well as possible solutions. They talked about how teeth erupt from the gums, what to do when there are decayed teeth or bad gums, how to remove teeth, and how to use wire to solidify a bad jaw or loose teeth.
What almost-AD geniuses.
Etruscan Golden Domination
Over the next handful of centuries, the Etruscans (in modern-day Italy) dominated the dentistry game.
Around 200 AD, they started making gold bridges and crowns to restore decayed teeth to functionality, and they had already been using gold to make their teeth even more beautiful since the 6th-7th century BC.
Those Etruscans knew how to bring the bling.
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Still with the Worms, Though?
By the 14th century AD, a surgeon by the name of Guy de Chouliac invented an early form of dental forceps, making dental surgery much easier and more efficient.
The guy (and his colleagues) still believed the tooth worm thing, though!
Just goes to show that even the things that you and everyone you know assume to be true might make you look a fool in about 500 years.
That’s right, the history of dentistry is deep.
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Also during this period of time (and up through the 19th century), dentistry wasn’t actually its own profession. Maybe poor de Chouliac can be forgiven for believing the tooth worm thing when most tooth practitioners were barbers or general physicians. Keep in mind, doctors were using bloodletting as a routine healthy practice until the late 19th century, too.
The Big Year
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Users of the first toothbrushes in the history of dentistry didn’t get to choose their color, though. These super-fun toothbrushes consisted of a handle of bone or bamboo and bristles made from hog hair. Specifically, the thick, bristle-y hair on the back of a hog’s neck. Sounds good, doesn’t it?
And then Came the Books
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Thomas Browne wrote the very first tooth-y book in 1530. Charles Allen wrote the first English dentistry book in 1685. Titled “Operator for the Teeth,” it doesn’t exactly sound healthy and benign. Or particularly funny.
But humor and dentistry just go together, don’t they?
Laughing gas and all?
Thomas Browne, another English guy, sure saw the connection. His “A Letter to a Friend” (published around 1690) focused on dentistry, Egyptian mummies, and hilarity.
You can probably still check it out at the library if you need a toothy laugh.
Get it? Toothy laugh?
Egyptians were First, but Pierre was the Father
The 17th century held the very first vision of dentistry that people today might start to recognize.
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Pierre Fauchard is known as the Father of Modern Dentistry, and for good reason. He was the first one to start using modern fillings, and also pinpointed the cause of cavities (sugar and tartaric acid, if you didn’t know). He perfected the usage of dental prosthesis to fix loose teeth and missing jaw parts, and vastly improved the dentures game (although human teeth would still be ineffectively used for dentures for a while yet).
Greenwood Dentistry Dynasty
And then America gets into the game.
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Isaac Greenwood was the first dentist born in America, but his biggest accomplishment in the history of dentistry was having a kid.
He did some cool stuff as a dentist in his own right, probably, but it was his progeny that really made a name for the Greenwoods. At least in terms of the history of dentistry.
His son, John Greenwood, would go on to invent the dental foot engine, which powers a dental drill. Pretty boring, but important.
J. Greenwood was also dentist to one of America’s finest, good ol’ George Washington himself.
And before you blame Greenwood the Younger for Geroge’s wooden teeth, take a minute. They weren’t actually made of wood! What they were made of, however, may be worse…
This famed forefather had hippo tusk teeth!
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(Or, according to some, the teeth were actually made of gold and ivory and human teeth and animal teeth. Who knows.) They must have worked out okay, though.
After Pierre and the Greenwoods (great in the history of dentistry, also a great band name), things moved pretty fast for dentistry.
The 1800s saw the creation and distribution of modern toothpaste, floss, legit prosthetic teeth (and rubber to make the bottoms of dentures way more comfy), a college specifically for dentistry (Baltimore College of Dental Surgery), the American Dental Association, and the creation of a new dental degree at the Harvard University Dental School (Dentariae Medicinae Doctorae).
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And finally, in the late 1900s, the history of dentistry hit a new high.
Dentists and their colleagues started to think about the patient’s pain as maybe an important part of this whole puzzle.
And the dental inventions keep coming: laser dentistry, veneers, toothbrushes with nylon bristles, dental implants, porcelain crowns, bleaching, whitening, bonding, oh my! All in the mid-late 1900s.
Today, dentists can use lasers to bond porcelain dental veneers to patient’s teeth. The veneers are strong, thin, and can last for over a decade.
Bleaching and whitening aren’t just available at your dental office, you can buy the technology and do it yourself at home. It wasn’t all that long ago (like a hundred years, maybe) that dentistry wasn’t concerned at all about visuals or normal-looking teeth, so being able to DIY your tooth look is a pretty big step.
Implants are also so much better.
If you could ask some of those ancient Egyptians with their gold wire grills, they’d probably agree.
Implants are common, relatively easy, and much less likely to be rejected by your body (unlike the dead-person implants of most of the history of dentistry).
They’ve come a long way, baby.
Throughout the history of dentistry, the field has never stopped changing, adapting, and working to fit the needs of the people.
What actually were the issues of those early dental patients? Did those holes (and maybe fillings) in their teeth actually give them any relief, comfort, or joy?
We may never know, but what we can know for sure is that we owe our relatively painless dental experiences to the researchers, patients, and innovative doctors throughout history.
Who knows, without some of these inventions and mistakes and complaints, your dentist might still be trying to drill a hole in your molar with a bow and arrow.
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American Dental Association-Life Member, Emeritus Fellow of Academy of General Dentistry, American Academy of Implant Dentistry