Let’s Take a Look Back at the History of Dentistry

history of dentistry in the ancient world The history of dentistry is fascinating and goes back a lot longer than you might think. How long? How about 14,000 years? It’s true. Archaeologists have found evidence of dental scraping, scouring, and even drilling, that go all the way back to Neolithic times. The tools may have changed, but the principles remain the same — remove the decay, drill and fill. How did they do it? The answers might surprise you. And they might give you a clue about what the future of dentistry may hold.

Why Study the History of Dentistry?

Studying the history of your profession can give you an idea about the way people went about solving problems in the past. The issues were the same, and the solutions were startlingly similar. But the technology and the philosophies behind the cure were different.

Did you know that many cultures around the world believed that worms caused tooth decay? From ancient Sumer to India, Greece, and Japan, many thought that “the tooth worm” was responsible for the little holes we now know to be the work of bacteria. It may sound silly, but if you look at the round holes that decay makes in teeth, and consider that bacteria are a relatively recent discovery, it seems as reasonable an explanation as any. Most interestingly, though, is the fact that, though the explanations and available materials varied according to time and place, the principles of dentistry remained the same. Scrape, drill and fill — the same principles by which we clean and mend teeth today. What will the future of dentistry hold? Perhaps you’ll make the next significant discovery.

The History of Dentistry: The Earliest Dental Care

Scientists believe that the problem of tooth decay is relatively new.

In fact, they think that rotten teeth only became common around 10,000 years ago. Before that, our ancestors didn’t suffer from cavities. The change came at the same time that humans gave up their nomadic hunting and gathering ways, and settled down.

In fact, according to Alejandra Ortiz of New York University, only 1 to 5 percent of hunter-gatherers suffered from cavities. Compare this to between 10 and 85 percent of agricultural people. Scientists believe it was the switch to a carbohydrate-rich diet that caused the problem, and we suffer from it to this day.

Neolithic dentistry

Early societies were clever. They not only recognized the growing problem of tooth decay, but they also came up with several solutions pretty early on. Researchers at the University of Bologna in Italy, for example, found evidence of scouring on a 14,000-year-old tooth to remove decay. Other researchers found evidence of tooth drilling between 7,500 and 9,000 years ago in an area in modern-day Pakistan. In this case, scientists found tools to accompany the treated teeth — drill heads made from flint. Evidence for the first filling that we know about came from a mandible found in an area of modern-day Slovenia. That filling, scientists believe, was made from beeswax.

Neanderthal dentistry

In a startling discovery, researchers at the University of Kansas think they may have found indications of primitive dental work that dates back 130,000 years. Scientists took a new look at teeth of a Neanderthal skull that archaeologists found in the 19th century. The teeth bore groove marks that the scientists believe the individual created using a toothpick. They believe that the individual rubbed at his or her teeth with the toothpick to relieve some dental discomfort. That may have been the first dentistry.

History of Dentistry: The Ancient World

The great civilizations of the ancient world saw an expansion of dentistry to include extraction with tools, dental prosthetics, and the treatment of gum disease. The history of dentistry made some giant leaps forward regarding technology, thanks to some very bright people around the world.

The Egyptians (3100 – 330 B.C.)

The world’s earliest recorded dentist was Hesyre, who lived around 2660 B.C. Hieroglyphics from his tomb in Saqqara (near today’s Cairo) give him the titles of Chief of Dentists and Chief of Physicians. Little is known of dental practice at this time. However, archaeologists have found evidence of extractions, treatments for dental infections and abscesses, and dental prostheses. Several papyri record treatments for mandibular fractures, as well as tooth and mouth disorders. Many involved stabilizing teeth that had become loose from tooth decay. They accomplished this with pastes that would harden and hold the teeth in place. The papyri also contained various recipes for pain relief, including white willow bark, which is a source of salicylic acid. Salicylic acid is the chemical from which aspirin is made today.

The Ancient Greeks (13th century B.C. to approximately 600 AD)

Some ancient Greek scholars wrote about dentistry, including Hippocrates (460 BC to 370 BC) and Aristotle (384 BC to 322 BC). Contributions from this period include treatments for tooth decay and gum disease and using forceps to extract teeth. The Ancient Greeks also used wire to stabilize loose teeth and fraction jaws. On top of that, they documented the eruption pattern of emerging teeth.

The Islamic Golden Age (approximately 700 to 1300 AD)

The Islamic Golden Age was a period of great scientific and cultural innovation. Also, Muslim civilization took an enormous interest in translating and assimilating the collected knowledge of other cultures. Some of these cultures included Greece, China, India, and Egypt. The Persian physician Avicenna wrote The Book of Healing (1027 AD) and The Canon of Medicine (1025 AD) at this time. Abubakr Rabi ibn Ahmad al-Akhawayni al-Bokhari also wrote The Learner’s Guide to Medicine. This book included chapters on oral and dental diseases. Some of the ideas that came out of this time included cutting the dental nerve to relieve pain, anesthesia, and antisepsis. Al-Zahrawi, whom many consider being the most celebrated surgeon of the Middle Ages, created many surgical tools. His dental instruments resemble some of those still in use today.

The History of Dentistry: Modern Times

In Europe, dentistry wasn’t considered its own profession until the 19th century. The primary treatment for many dental problems was extraction. And instead of going to a dentist to have a tooth removed, people would visit a barber or physician. But, starting in the 16th century, the history of dentistry saw rapid development.

Europe takes the wheel: the 16th to 20th centuries

Many know the 16th-century French physician Pierre Fauchard as the Father of Modern Dentistry. Fauchard, a surgeon, made significant advances in dental tools. He took designs from watchmakers, barbers, and jewelers, adapting them to dental surgery. He also introduced dental fillings to Europe. Most importantly, he discovered the link between sugar and tooth decay. He also invented braces and other prostheses. British surgeon John Hunter took up where Fauchard left off. His two books, Natural History of Human Teeth (1771) and Practical Treatise on the Diseases of the Teeth (1778) revolutionized the study of dentistry. He also successfully pioneered tooth transplants. In Britain, dentistry became a government-regulated profession in 1878. The next year, the first dentist was elected as president of the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh.

The 20th century to today

In the past, most people would wait to consult a dentist until they were in unbearable pain. However, as knowledge of what caused tooth decay and gum disease expanded, so did know about how to prevent them. The 20th-century saw the rise of preventive dentistry. As with so many developments, this one began with the military. Soldiers during the first world war suffered terribly from “trench mouth,” a severe form of gingivitis. As a result, the military pioneered oral care regimens, and they were successful. Soldiers during World War II had much better oral health. In 1913, a Connecticut dentist, Alfred C. Fones, employed a group of young women to clean children’s teeth. These cleanings resulted in a dramatic reduction in cavities among children. And as a result, the dental hygienist profession was born. The twentieth century also saw an explosion of tools, materials, and medicines. The advent of Novocain in 1905 made dental treatment much less painful. Nylon bristle toothbrushes hit the market in 1938 and were a huge success. Water fluoridation became commonplace in the 1940s, followed by the first fluoride toothpaste in 1955. The electric tools in your dentist’s office today were invented in the 1960s. Cosmetic dentistry has existed for a long time. However, it took off in the 1990s. Veneers, whitening, implants, and tooth-colored resin fillings all came to market at this time.

Beyond a History of Dentistry: The Future

What new developments can we expect to see in the field of dentistry? Some believe that laser technology will become more widespread. Lasers have been used in dental offices since the 1990s. However, technological improvements may make them more commonplace. What does this mean? More precision and less pain, for one. Or what would you say about an end to fillings? A bioengineer at King’s College, London recently discovered a way to help teeth to repair themselves. The process works by encouraging the stem cells in the pulp inside teeth to generate new cells. How about using 3D printers to create replacement teeth? Or digital X-rays that produces quicker images with much less radiation? All of these technologies already exist. But if they become widespread, they have the potential of completely changing the face of dentistry. Again. The future of dentistry is exciting and bright. And understanding the history of dentistry shows us not only where the profession has come from, but where it might be going. Featured Image CC0 ArtsyBee via Pixabay.com

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