The History of Dentistry from Ancient to Modern Times

| , , | November 8, 2023

The history of dentistry dates back thousands of years and has evolved significantly over time, from simple tooth extractions and basic remedies to a highly specialized field with various subdisciplines, including orthodontics, periodontics, endodontics, oral surgery, and more.

Advancements in technology, materials, and techniques continue to shape the landscape of dentistry, improving patient outcomes and overall oral health.

The History of Dentistry: Dentistry in Earlier Times

While nowadays the art of healing has many different divisions, in earlier times this was not so much the case. Most things were healed in a general manner, so no specialists were required. This would eventually change.

Sacred Origins and the Earliest Signs of Dentistry

As far as we know, the cause of dental disease was attributed to superstition at first. To heal them, sacrifices and other religious rituals were required to please some sort of supernatural power. Anomalies were therefore treated by priests and other sacred characters.

Earliest Treatments

One of the earliest cases of what can be considered dentistry was found in a Sumerian text. The text derives from the Sumer civilization. Found in Mesopotamia, Ancient Sumer was one of the earliest known civilizations. Nowadays, this region is also known as Iraq.

READ MORE: Ancient Civilizations Timeline: The Complete List from Aboriginals to Incans and The Cradle of Civilization: Mesopotamia and the First Civilizations

The text described a case of ‘tooth worms’ as a cause of tooth decay. Other cases can be traced back to around 7000 BC when the first signs of bow-drill operations were performed. Indeed, somewhat frightening tools and the discipline of dentistry have been inseparable from the very beginning.

The earliest case of dental filling probably took place somewhere around 3800 BC in a region that we know today as Slovenia. From here, a trend can be identified in terms of the development of dentistry. The trend, in this sense, is mostly that the most stable civilizations were able to establish the most elaborate dental care practices.

Stable Societies and Dentistry

The first person who was explicitly referred to as a dental practitioner can be traced back to ancient Egypt.

A tomb dedicated to a person called ‘Hesy Re’ is our best proof of this. The person was described as ‘the greatest of those who deal with teeth, and of physicians’. The techniques used by Hesy Re and potential colleagues were effective for dental decay ranging from lost teeth, dental abscesses, and decaying gums.

Dentistry and Chinese History

The Chinese developed a series of treatments that revolved around boiling herbal plants and other natural resources. Acupuncture, too, was used to treat toothache and gum disease. About 26 puncture points were used for toothache and six for gum problems.

However, not all 26 puncture points were located around the mouth and teeth. Indeed, the method of the ancient Chinese also took into account that the root of dental problems wasn’t always in the mouth itself. It could be initiated somewhere else in the body, something which is also recognized in many ‘alternative’ forms of healthcare.

READ MORE: Ancient Chinese Inventions

Dentistry and Greek History

If the search is limited to Greek society, Asclepius, Aristotle, and Hippocrates are the people to refer to when looking at the earliest figures that had something to say about dentistry.

Asclepius is considered the Greek god of medicine but was also an actual person. In one of his first dental surgeries, he used the ‘plumbeumodontagogoon’ as a tool to extract teeth.

During 500-300 BC, Hippocrates and Aristotle wrote about dentistry, including the eruption pattern of teeth, treating decayed teeth and gum disease, extracting teeth with forceps, and using wires to stabilize loose teeth and fractured jaws. From about 170 AD onwards, the Greeks began using gold crowns and fixed bridgework in their practices.

The Dentist as a New Profession

While it had been practiced for a long period of time, the profession of a dentist wasn’t really a thing until the last centuries of the first millennium. For example, while Hippocrates is believed to have brought the first scientific understanding of dentistry, he was still referred to in a more general sense: as the Father of Medicine.

The Arabs 

The Arabians were the first society to actually recognize dentistry as a profession. One of the most well-known dentists was Avicenna, born in 980 AD. He used the drilling of teeth and filling them with medicaments to counter any form of constant tooth pain.

A bit later, around the year 1100, one of the first books that had representations of dental instruments was published.

Monks and Barbers

In earlier times, the most common people who would perform surgeries were monks and priests. This might be the case because dental decay was still believed to have some sacred cause to it. However, around 1150, the monks were prohibited from performing any type of surgery. This, of course, also included tooth surgery.

Barbers took over the tasks originally performed by the monks and priests. Not only in relation to dental surgery but really any surgery in general.

The barbers could be divided into two groups: surgeons who were educated and trained to perform complex surgical operations and lay barbers or barber surgeons. The latter performed more routine hygienic services including shaving, bleeding, and tooth extraction.

The red, white, and blue pole that is oftentimes outside of a barbershop directly derives from this era. The look of the barber pole is linked to bloodletting, with red representing blood and white representing the bandages used to stem the bleeding. The blue color is most likely linked to the color of the veins.

Dentistry in the 16th Century Onwards

In the 16th century, there was significant progress when it came to the dental practice and profession. Amongst others, Pierre Fauchard published The Surgeon Dentist, A Treatise on Teeth. This was really the first book to describe the comprehensive system for the practice of dentistry. Because of this, Fauchard is credited as being the Father of Modern Dentistry.

While before the tools that were used in dentistry were also applicable outside of the discipline, from about 1800 there came more and more tools that were specifically designed for dentists. These include the first dental foot engine and the first chair especially made for dental patients.

Between 1800 and 1900, the first scientific journals specifically for dentistry were published. Also, the first x-ray of teeth could be made and the specialization of orthodontists became more widespread.

In 1840, the first dental school opened the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery. From that point on, the field of dentistry became more and more specialized, leading to the modern era.

The Future of Dentistry

While the treatment of dental problems has made significant advancements since ‘tooth worms’ were first discovered, the future of dentistry holds great potential. As David Thode from Cook Street Villiage Dental shared in a recent interview:

“When most people think of a dentist, they think of lying in a chair with a dentist peering inside their gaping mouth while holding a drill. That will still be part of the denist expeirence, but as technology advances, it will become a smaller and smaller part of the expeirence. We’ll be able to tap into the technological revolution and make use of new advancements such as artificial intelligence, data-mining, gene-editing technology, and even augmented reality to help prevent and treat problems before they become serious.”

Artificial Intelligence and Dentistry

The future of dentistry goes hand in hand with other societal developments. The most prominent one when we think about dentistry might lay in the use of Artificial Intelligence.

Mostly, it will help with personalized dental care. Smart algorithms can be integrated into the healthcare system to analyze health data, research findings, and treatment techniques to offer diagnostic and therapeutic recommendations for individual patients.

It’s still a bit tricky to say what it will offer since there are definitely some ethical aspects to consider. However, it does have great potential.

Other Technological Advancements

Outside of AI, there are some other technological advancements that might be very helpful for the dental discipline in the future such as a smart toothbrush, augmented and virtual reality for long-distance consultations, 3D printing of replacement parts such as dental implants, and CRISPR technology. All of these have the potential to help with the identification and treatment of dental problems.

READ MORE: Who Invented the Toothbrush: William Addis’ Modern Toothbrush

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