The Evolution of Dentistry

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Dental diseases have plagued humanity ever since the beginning. Fortunately, today we have the technology, knowledge, and expertise to diagnose and treat even the most malicious dental diseases.

It’s difficult to imagine a world where you carry out complex dental procedures without the technology we have right now. But such was the reality for our ancestors.

Our predecessors may not have completely understood the root cause of most dental problems, but they were still able to find ways to stop pain, prevent infections, and help restore their teeth to some degree.

While the tools and treatment methods they relied on might seem barbaric (and disgusting) when judged according to modern standards, it’s still fascinating to take a step back and learn about how dentistry became what it is today. 

So, let’s take a deep dive and find out more about the intriguing evolution of dentistry!

What is dentistry?

Dentistry is a branch of medicine that deals with the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of gum, teeth, mouth, and jaw-related diseases. 

Modern-day dentists — like those at Australian Dental Specialists — believe dentistry is not only vital for maintaining good oral health, but is also important for the physical and mental health of your entire body (because the human being is an intricately interconnected organism).

The Early History of Dentistry

As one of the oldest medical professions, dentistry can be traced back to 7000 BCE to the Indus Valley Civilization (present day Pakistan). Scientists have found evidence of drills made of flint heads used by bead artisans in the Harappan civilization to remove teeth and other rotting tissues.

However, it wasn’t until 2000 years later when the first documented descriptions relating to tooth decay and dentistry were available. An early piece of Sumerian text described “tooth worms” as the cause of dental decay, and the idea wasn’t proven wrong until the 1700s.

Aristotle and Hippocrates also wrote about dentistry in ancient Greece, most notably about the treatments of decaying teeth. 

Fast forward to 1530 and the first book about dentistry — The Artzney Buchlein — was published. The first English dental textbook titled “Operator for the Teeth” was written later in 1685 by Charles Allen. By the 1700s, dentistry had progressed into a much more “formal “ profession. 

The Evolution of Modern Day Dentistry

In the year 1723, Pierre Fauchard, a French surgeon who is widely deemed as the Father of Modern Dentistry, published perhaps one of the most popular and influential dental books in history — The Surgeon Dentist, a Treatise on Teeth.

In his book, Pierre described the basics of oral physiology and anatomy. The book helped define a comprehensive system for treating and caring for teeth. It described methods of treating tooth decay, periodontal disease, and how to perform tooth replacement and other orthodontic surgeries. 

It’s safe to say that the book helped lay the foundations for modern dentistry and was held in high regard by other medical professionals.

Pierre Fauchard also contributed to this field of medicine by introducing the use of dental prostheses and dental fillings. He also helped identify the scientifically accurate cause of decaying teeth, which is acids from sugar fermentation.

The 1800s were marked by significant advances in dentistry, especially in denture development. 

An Italian physician, Giuseppangelo Fonzi, developed teeth made out of porcelain with baked-in retention pins. In England, Charles Stent developed the impression compound,  which played a vital role in the future of dental prosthetics in 1856. 

A few individuals from America also made significant discoveries that propelled dentistry forward. In 1844, Horace Wells introduced nitrous oxide anesthesia for dental procedures, which opened up a new chapter in the field of dental surgery. 

This was followed by the development of cohesive gold foil for denture bases and soldering procedures by Robert Arthur in 1855.

Lastly, Charles Goodyear’s newly developed process of vulcanization of rubber in 1839 helped revolutionize the materials commonly used in dentures.

Dental education also made huge progress in the 1800s. The Baltimore College of Dental Surgery opened in 1840 and was the first dental school in the world.

A year later, the state of Alabama enacted the first dental practice act in 1841 and 2 decades later, the American Dental Association (ADA) was established. 

In 1867, the first university-affiliated dental school — The Harvard University Dental School — was founded. Here’s an interactive timeline of all the major developments at Harvard University Dental School from 1867 to 2021.

By the year 1870, a total of 9 dental schools were established in the US.

In 1873, the first mass-produced toothpaste was introduced by Colgate. By the 1890s, Colgate started producing toothpaste in collapsible tubes, similar to modern-day toothpaste tubes.

What may come as a surprise to many is that in the early 1900s, as few as only 7% of Americans had toothpaste in their homes and daily brushing was quite rare. It was only after World War II that Americans (and the rest of the world) started brushing their teeth daily.

Because of the prevalent poor oral hygiene within recruits, the US military started forcing those enlisted to brush twice a day every day. It is believed that soldiers continued this healthy habit after the war and their family members followed suit.

It wouldn’t be wrong to say that World War II was the major factor in the development of the most signficant dental habit today — brushing daily. 

Later on, governments around the world started developing programs in schools that were focused on educating children on the importance of oral hygiene and dental checkups.

Dentistry Today

We are much more fortunate compared to our predecessors. The days of guzzling whiskey and biting down on bullets to get ready for tooth extractions are long gone. 

Dentistry has now evolved from the painful and primitive form of medicine into an advanced state-of-the-art field aimed at preventative care and diagnostics. 

As you can see from its brief history, modern-day dentistry has made huge leaps since the first flint head drills used thousands of years ago by the Indus Valley Civilization. 

You should consider yourself lucky for being born in the 21st century the next time you find yourself sitting in the dentist’s chair!

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