The History of Dentistry

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Can you imagine going through dental work without anesthesia? Thanks to the milestones made throughout the centuries, you can appreciate the convenient technologies and equipment your dentist uses to make you comfortable during your appointments. Here's how the history of dentistry has led to the modern office you visit today.

Tooth Decay in the Ancient World

As early as 5,000 B.C., ancient Sumerians first referred to tooth decay in written text as "tooth worms," according to the American Dental Association (ADA). But it was an Egyptian, Hesy-Re, who is thought to be the first noted dentist.

Maybe you've wondered how ancient humans maintained oral hygiene — especially since they didn't have fluoride toothpaste to keep their pearly whites shining. A study published in PLOS One notes that our ancestors actually had remarkably few cavities, thanks in part to their diet and consumption of weeds with antibacterial properties.

Medieval Dental Practices

The ADA notes that the Chinese were the first to use fillings made of amalgam (as early as 700 A.D.), but it was in medieval Europe where texts on performing and regulating dental surgery were first identified, explains the ADA. By 1210 in France, dental surgeries, including tooth extractions, were routine. In the 16th century, these procedures appeared in published books dedicated to dentistry, which described tooth extraction, jaw anatomy and tooth decay in depth, among other dental matters. Medieval care providers also began experimenting with anesthesia, concocting herbal mixtures from substances such opium and hemlock, notes the Wood Library-Museum of Anesthesiology.

New Tools in the Age of Enlightenment

The ADA notes that root canals, dentures and crowns were part of dental services by the mid-1700s. Dental professionals of the time were already tackling cosmetic concerns and attempting to make gold crowns look as much like natural teeth as possible.

America's Founding Fathers played a role in the history of dentistry, too. Paul Revere advertised his dental services in his newspaper, and George Washington infamously wore many sets of dentures through his life, as reported by Tufts Dental Medicine. Though the legend says he had wooden teeth, the dentures were actually made of a combination of bone, hippopotamus ivory, human teeth, brass screws, lead and gold wire.

The Foundation of Modern Dentistry

In 1859, 26 dentists met in New York and officially formed the ADA. By that time, dentists had developed ether anesthesia for oral surgery. Tube toothpaste as we know it today became a mainstream staple of oral hygiene by the turn of the century. One of the most important diagnostic tools in dentistry, the X-ray, was also discovered around this time.

Social and cultural barriers to the dental profession were broken in the 19th century. Dr. Lucy Beaman Hobbs became the first woman to graduate an American dental school in 1866, and Dr. Robert Tanner Freeman forged the way as the first African-American man to earn a dental degree in 1869.

Advances in Hygiene and Cosmetic Dentistry

In 1905, novocaine was invented, making dental visits much more comfortable for many people, reports the ADA. Hygiene also took a leap forward when the first oral hygiene school opened in 1913. Fluoridated water was introduced in the 1940s and is still a standard for protecting teeth today.

When you hear the whizzing sound of a tooth being drilled in your dentist's office, you can thank the dentist who invented the high-speed drill in 1957. Also, though lasers may seem like a more modern tool, they were actually first used in the 1960s to treat gum disease. Around the same time, fillings as you know them today — made of composite resin — were also developed.

You might be wondering when teeth whitening products came on the market. The first home bleaching kit was released in 1989. Shortly thereafter, whitening and other aesthetic treatments, such as veneers and tooth-covered restorations, became widespread.

The Future of Dentistry

Dentistry has come a long way, and new, innovative practices are being developed every day. For example, in the future, lasers may be used to help prevent cavities before they even start forming, reports the University of California San Francisco. For now, though, it's still best to keep that regular dental checkup, and make sure you brush your teeth twice a day and floss daily!

This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.

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What To Expect During a DENTAL VISIT

On your first visit, your dentist will take a full health history. On follow-up visits, if your health status has changed, make sure to tell your dentist. Here’s what you can expect during most trips to the dentist.

  • A Thorough Cleaning – a dental hygienist or dentist will scrape along and below the gum line to remove built-up plaque and tartar that can cause gum disease, cavities, bad breath and other problems. Then he or she will polish and floss your teeth.

  • A Full Dental Examination – your dentist will perform a thorough examination of your teeth, gums and mouth, looking for signs of disease or other problems.

  • X-Rays – X-rays can diagnose problems otherwise unnoticed, such as damage to jawbones, impacted teeth, abscesses, cysts or tumors, and decay between the teeth.