Dr. Jana Ikeda, DDS - Boulder Dentist | Brush Up Your History: Dentistry Through The Ages
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Brush Up Your History: Dentistry Through The Ages

05 Jun Brush Up Your History: Dentistry Through The Ages

Dating all the way back to the Indus Valley civilization in 7000 B.C.E., dentistry is one of the world’s oldest medical professions.  And while some people are frightened by going to the dentist, you’ll be surprised at how far our technologies and procedures have come!

Humble Beginnings

The earliest recorded evidence of dentistry comes from the Indus Valley Civilization around 7000 B.C.E. in the form of “bow drills” crafted by skilled bead-makers. These drills would be fashioned out of flint, and used to remove rotting tissue that causes toothaches.


The birth of dentistry was, like many ancient sciences, accompanied with myths and misinformation. A common belief was that toothaches and cavities were caused by “tooth worms”, creatures or spirits (depending on the culture) that inhabited one’s teeth. The earliest record “tooth worms” was found on a Sumerian scroll written around 5000 B.C.E., but it was commonly accepted in Mesopotamia, China, Japan, India, and eventually Europe until the mid 1800’s!

The first record of a dental practitioners comes from Egypt, Hesy-Re, who is referred to as the “first dentist”, lived  around the year 2600 B.C.E., and from his time on dentistry became a common medical practice. Teeth recovered from mummy’s revealed how gold wire was used to hold replacement teeth together. The Ancient Egyptians continued to practice and progress dentistry, as well as other civilizations such as the Chinese, Greeks, Roman, and Babylonians. These early stages of dentistry mainly consisted of procedures and technologies used to extract teeth to alleviate pain and help stop infection.


Mortifying Middle Ages

Dentistry remained a less-refined profession through a good part of the Middle Ages, usually being practiced by general physicians or lay-barbers. Yes, you read that right, barbers performed the less complex medical procedures such as tooth extraction, shaving, leeching, etc., while surgeons were educated and trained to perform the more technical tasks.

In France, around the year 1210, the Guild of Barbers was formed to set regulations for professional barbers and help distinguish themselves from amateurs. This guild, and others like it, were accompanied by royal decrees limiting what lay-barbers could do compared to trained surgeons and physicians. At this time, dentistry was still grouped in with the more crude healing techniques.


A primitive toothbrush from the Ming Dynasty (Circa 1500)

In the 14th century, Guy de Chauliac invented the dental pelican (resembling a pelican’s beak) which was used to perform dental extractions up until the late 18th century. In 1498, in China, the bristle toothbrush was invented.
The bristles were made of the stiff hairs from the back of a pig’s neck (pig’s hair was used in toothbrushes until 1938, when nylon bristles were introduced). The very first book dedicated to the practice of dentistry, The Little Medicinal Book for All Kinds of Diseases and Infirmities of the Teeth , was written by Artzney Buchlein in Germany in 1530. For the remainder of the Middle Ages, dental technology stagnated; tooth extraction followed by homemade remedies for pain relief were the best that people could hope for.

Modern Dentistry Brings Safety, Precision, and Comfort

By the 18th Century, dentistry had become a more refined profession, with new technologies and discoveries providing rapid advancements to the dental community. Pierre Fauchard, credited with being the “Father of Modern Dentistry”, wrote The Surgeon Dentist, a Treatise on Teeth (1723), the defining book of the century for dental sciences. Among many of his developments were the extensive use of dental prosthesis, introducing dental fillings as treatment for dental caries and stating that sugar created acids which were responsible for dental decay. Now there were legitimate ways to treat and cure oral diseases and tooth decay.

For the first time, people actually began to study the science behind dentistry and oral health; as printing and general literacy increased, so did the general circulation of information. The 1700’s and 1800’s saw an explosion of discoveries, inventions, and patents in the dental community:

  • Gold crowns were introduced for root canal patients in 1746
  • The first patent for porcelain teeth replacements was filed by Frenchman Nicolas Dubois de Chemant in 1789 (and by 1825 they were being mass-produced for the public)
  • 1790 – John Greenwood, one of George Washington’s dentists, constructed the first known dental foot engine, in which a foot pedal was used to power a drill
  • In 1846, Dentist William Morton conducts the first successful public demonstration of the use of ether anesthesia for surgery.
  • In 1859, Twenty-six dentists met in Niagara Falls, New York, and formed the American Dental Association.
  • Willoughby Miller, an American dentist in Germany, writes of the microbial cause of dental decay in his book Micro-Organisms of the Human Mouth. This generates an unprecedented interest in oral hygiene and starts a world-wide movement to promote regular toothbrushing and flossing.

75b70460455be5ba4127f8968c5842a8The 20th century saw the refinement and modernization of the dental profession. Novocain was originally invented around 1905 to be a quick acting anesthesia to use on soldiers during war time. It never quite caught on in that respect, but it was picked up for dental use. The growth of schools and licenses for professional dentists and orthodontists standardized practices and assured patients that they were getting quality care. After the end of WWII, American soldiers brought the values of good oral hygiene back home to the states. Research continued, with the discovery that fluoride could help prevent damage to teeth from acids, sugars, and plaque. Newburgh, New York, and Grand Rapids, Michigan become the first cities in America to add sodium fluoride to their public water systems in 1945, beginning the age of mass water fluoridation. This was closely followed by the introduction of fluoridated toothpaste in 1950.

Looking back at how far the dental industry has come, it’s scary to think what it must have been like to live back when oral pain and decay were the normal.

BONUS FACT: Did you know that if you had a toothache in Medieval Germany, the general advice was to kiss a donkey… seriously!!