A Brief History of Dentistry
With all of the advancements that dentistry has made, it’s hard for us to think about what dentistry must have been like before it became modernised. How did people take care of their teeth hundreds of years ago? Whom did they call if they had a toothache?
We’re very interested in the origins of our field at Coburg Dental Group, so here is a brief history of dentistry.
Before the agricultural revolution, tooth decay was very low. But 10,000 years ago spurred the growth of farming society, an event that correlated with an increase in cavities. There is evidence of dentistry as far back as 7000 BC in the Indus Valley Civilization, a Bronze Age civilisation that was in what is now northeast Afghanistan, Pakistan and northwest India. Their form of dentistry involved curing tooth related disorders with bow drills, a reliable and effective practice that we use in another form today.
The earliest known dental filling was made of beeswax and discovered in Slovenia. It is dated back 6500 years. From a Sumerian text in 5000 BC up until the 14th century AD, people all over Asia, Europe and Africa believed that tooth worms caused tooth decay.
The first recorded use of dental appliances or bridges comes from the Etruscans, a society that lived in Italy, as early as 700 BC. Ancient Greek scholars like Hippocrates and Aristotle, among their philosophies, also wrote about patterns of teeth, how to treat gum disease and decayed teeth, extracting teeth with forceps and the use of wires to stabilise loose teeth and fractured jaws.
Historically, dental extractions have been used to treat a variety of illnesses and dentistry was never a profession in itself. General physicians and barbers would usually perform dental procedures, which were often limited to extractions. They did, however, come up with some interesting instruments for this task. Guy de Chauliac invented the dental pelican in the 14th century. His invention was used to perform extractions until the late 18th century, when the pelican was replaced by the dental key, which was then replaced by modern forceps in the 20th century.
Modern dentistry began to develop between 1650 and 1800. “The father of modern dentistry” is the French surgeon Pierre Fauchard, due to his improvements of dental instruments. Fauchard reached far and wide to get it right, adapting tools from watchmakers, barbers and jewellers. He introduced dental fillings for cavities to the Western world, and realised the harmful consequences that sugar derivative acids have on the teeth. He also was a pioneer of dental prosthesis, suggesting substitutes for missing teeth like carved blocks of ivory or bone. In addition, he introduced braces, initially made of gold and waxed linen or silk threads.
British surgeon John Hunter published two very important books for the world of modern dentistry: Natural History of Human Teeth (1771) and Practical Treatise on the Diseases of the Teeth (1778). In 1763, he and London dentist James Spence worked together to theorise how tooth transplants would work. While the donated teeth never properly bonded with the patients’ gums, this was a remarkable achievement.
The 18th century brought dentistry leaps and bounds and into a profession, which first came under government regulation by the end of the 19th century with the Dentist Act in the UK in 1878. The British Dental Association formed in 1879.
Following these big steps, toothpaste was first sold in tubes in 1892, the first dental x-ray was made in 1896, and the first nylon toothbrush was made in 1938. The British NHS in 1948 made dental care much better, and it has continued to grow ever since.