The History of Dentistry: Where Did it Originate?

When we think of going to the dentist, we think of a sterile environment, 6-month check ups and the whirr of the dental drill. But, what is the history of dentistry?

Whether or not you like going to the dentist, there’s no denying we have it lucky. We live in an age of advanced technology and medicine. The majority of us have healthy teeth, and if we don’t they can be easily fixed. However, this wasn’t always the case.

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The history of dentistry.

There’s no definitive way of knowing the exact time the practice of dentistry started. However, it is one of the oldest medicinal professions in the world, dating back to around 7000 BC. The people in questions were the Indus Valley Civilisation and they show evidence of treating the mouth for tooth decay with primitive tools. It is believed that these were the first signs in the history of dentistry.

In 5000 BC the Sumerians blamed tooth worms as the cause of any dental issues. Apparently, little worms would bore holes in your teeth and hide in there. It sounds ridiculous now, but it wasn’t disproven until the 1700s! It was even common for dentists to mistake the patient’s nerves for worms and then try and yank them out. We don’t like to imagine how that would have felt…

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Egyptian skulls dating from 2900 to 2750 BC contain evidence of small holes in the jaw in the vicinity of a tooth’s roots. It is believed that these holes were made to drain abscesses. It’s even thought that attempts were made at dental surgery. Early attempts at tooth replacement date to Phoenicia (modern Lebanon) around 600 BC. Missing teeth were replaced with animal teeth and were bound into place with cord.

As impressive we’re sure the animal teeth were, real restorative work in the history of dentistry didn’t take place until 500BC.

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The Etruscans lived in the area of what is today central and northern Italy. Numerous dental bridges and partial dentures of gold have been found in Etruscan tombs. Who wouldn’t want gold dentures? The Romans adopted Etruscan culture after they conquered them. This meant that dentistry became a common practice for Romans around 400 BC.

The history of dentistry took a darker turn in Europe with the demise of the Western Roman Empire. This was around the year of 475 AD. Medicine in Europe declined rapidly to a state that would last for almost a thousand years. During this time places like monasteries were the people to go to for dental ailments. The humble barber, who took over the mantle when monks were banned from the practice of surgery, aided them. You can read about the barbers time as barber-surgeons on our sister website Jumping forward, in England, Henry VIII granted a charter to a combined group of barbers and surgeons. Which ultimately evolved into the Royal College of Surgeons.

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It was between 1650 and 1800 that the concepts behind what we now think of as dentistry got its start. The man behind the science was 17th century French Physician, Pierre Fauchard. He is called “The Father of Modern Dentistry”, and he was the brains behind many of the procedures still used in today’s society. For instance, he was the man behind the thought process for dental fillings, and he also helped to explain that acids from sugar are a major source of tooth decay.

Modern dentistry.

Dentistry took huge leaps in the late 18th century and the 19th century. Porcelain false teeth were invented in 1770. In 1790 Josiah Flagg invented the dentists chair. Furthermore for centuries rich patients had gold fillings but amalgam was first used in Europe around 1820. The first dental college in America (Baltimore College of Dental Surgery) opened in 1840. Then in 1846 Henry Morton demonstrated the use of ether as an anaesthetic in dentistry.

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Until the late 19th century dentists usually learned their trade by an apprenticeship. However in 1860 in Britain The Royal College of Surgeons introduced the Surgeons License in Dental Surgery. In 1879 a register of dentists was set up. From then on dentistry has progressed to what we know today!

In Britain the NHS was introduced in 1948, and although there may have been some bumps along the way, this has drastically improved British health care. Through medical and technological advances since then, we have become accustomed to the way dentistry is now.

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Looking back to the innovation (and sometimes questionable methods) of our ancestors, we think it’s easy to appreciate the dental care we receive now. From tooth worms and implants made of dog teeth, dentistry has been on a long journey.

The history of dentistry is vast and rich. We know we haven’t covered it all, so if you have any historical facts, we’d love to see them in the comments!

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