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Interesting Facts From the History of Orthodontics

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Medically Reviewed By Colgate Global Scientific Communications

Although there have been plenty of modern developments in orthodontics, the quest for perfect teeth began long ago. Even though the idea of the perfect smile is different between cultures and times, the idea to straighten teeth and correct the bite remains much the same. We’re here with some engaging information about orthodontics and its history.

Ancient Orthodontics

Although dental problems have surely been a problem for humanity before recorded history, the earliest evidence we have of practices resembling orthodontic work comes from ancient Egyptians, Etruscans, Greeks, and Romans.

Archeologists have uncovered bodies (including mummies!) preserved with metal or gold wire wrapped around and through their teeth. Though this may sound similar to modern braces, they were likely used for burial practices instead of dental application. Their purpose was to preserve teeth in place for burial ceremonies instead of to improve their bite while alive.

The dead of ancient Egyptians have also been found with metal bands around their teeth made from the guts of animals, according to The American of Orthodontics and Dentofacial Orthopedics. According to Smiles Change Lives, these bands may have been used to apply pressure to teeth, much like modern braces.

Around 400 B.C., The Greek philosopher Hippocrates authored some of the first categorizations of tooth ailments. It was not until hundreds of years later that orthodontic progress was made, when the Roman author Aulus Cornelius Celsus used his finger to apply pressure to reposition teeth over time. Around the same period in Rome, Pliny the Elder invented an early version of filling in damaged teeth to their original size.

Fun fact: Hippocrates is considered foundational to modern medicine, and the Hippocratic oath is named after his ideas.

17th and 18th Centuries

Evidence of orthodontic work that more closely resembles today's practices experienced an enormous amount of progress in the 17th and 18th centuries, particularly in Europe.

  • Matthaeus Gottfried Purmann and Phillip Pfaff both implemented rudimentary versions of dental impressions by taking wax and plaster to create molds from patients’ teeth, according to the History of Orthodontics.
  • Pierre Fauchard (born 1728) is considered greatly influential to modern orthodontics for his bandeau invention, a horseshoe-shaped metal appliance that expands the palate. He also contributed other groundbreaking work through his famous book titled The Surgeon Dentist.
  • The dentist to the King of France, Etiene Bourdet (born 1722), is also considered to be foundational to modern orthodontics. He famously remedied tooth crowding by extracting teeth to create space. According to the NYU Dental School, he wrote multiple books outlining major contributions and research into dentistry.
  • Christophe-François Delabarre (born 1787) helped separate overcrowding by inserting threads and wedges between spaces.

Of course, many of these practices would be considered crude by today's standards but were a huge leap forward for the time.

Orthodontics in the United States

Orthodontic work performed worldwide was continued in the United States, and techniques continued to advance closer to their modern, more refined counterparts.

  • J.S. Gunnell became famous for his invention of the occipital anchorage device in 1822, a predecessor to headgear, according to AbiLogic.
  • According to the NYU Dental School, Chapin A. Harris and Horace Hayden established what is considered the first dental school. Harris also published an important work known as the Harris' Dental Art: A Practical Treatise of Dental Surgery.
  • Edward Hartley Angle is considered the “father” of modern orthodontics, according to the Angle Orthodontist. He is known for a wide range of accomplishments in the field, including establishing the first educational program to train specialists in orthodontics and developing the prefabricated orthodontic appliance system.

Modern Advances

Advances in technology continue to open the door for progress in orthodontics. Progression in manufacturing, mining, fabrication, and beyond empower orthodontists to offer the perfect smile with increasingly effective and exact appliances.

According to Columbia Surgery, Wilhelm Roentgen accidentally discovered x-rays in 1895. This technology greatly increased orthodontic work accuracy, giving dental professionals unparalleled insight into your teeth' size, shape, and layout. Given this, it’s no big surprise that you’re still likely to receive x-rays to chart your orthodontic progress.

Materials science has been especially important, enabling orthodontic appliances to be created using stronger, safer, and better-looking materials (including ceramic brackets in braces). Dental professionals once attached teeth to brackets by wrapping wire. The invention of adhesive strong enough to allow brackets to be fixed directly to teeth paved the way for the modern iteration of braces.

The computer revolution also contributes greatly to the evolution of orthodontics. Imaging continues to advance, while technologies like computer modeling and 3D printing offer unprecedented accuracy at the hands of dental professionals and fabrication laboratories.

The field of orthodontics will continue to advance, but one lasting change is unlikely to disappear: the increased focus on straight teeth, a proper bite, and a perfect smile. You’ve done a great job reading some highlights from the field of orthodontics and increasing your understanding of how things came to be as they are today.

Oral Care Center articles are reviewed by an oral health medical professional. This information is for educational purposes only. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist, physician or other qualified healthcare provider. 

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