OperaDDS Blog

September 8, 2016

27 Jaw Dropping Facts About the History of Dentistry

Topics: OperaDDS, Dentistry


There are lots of things that we take for granted nowadays.  Advancements in medicine, technology and even dentistry.  While even the mere thought of going to the dentist can instill the fear of God in most, dental practices today are absolutely nothing compared to what our ancestors went through. For many people, this meant a simple toothache would last a lifetime.  

Did you know that human teeth used to be used as dentures? Or how dentists resolved the issue of ‘tooth worms’ back in the day? 

We wanted to explore the depths of dentistry’s fascinating history:  from odd practices to downright frightening techniques, we delve into the jaw dropping facts that the history of dentistry has to offer.

27 Jaw Dropping Facts About the History of Dentistry

  1. Paul Revere was a metalworker by trade who constructed dentures from gold and ivory. Even George Washington suffered from tooth loss and ill-fitting dentures. The first president of the United States had dentures made of metal and carved ivory, or metal and carved cow's teeth, but never made out of wood.
  2. During medieval times, the practice of dentistry was mostly confined to tooth extractions. Replacing lost or decayed teeth was seldom considered. Gaps between teeth were expected, even among the rich. In the 1500s, Queen Elizabeth I filled the holes in her mouth with cloth to improve her appearance in public.
  3. Human teeth were once used for dentures.  If you were poor, it was common to pull out your own teeth and sell them for money. However, this type of denture soon rotted. Rich people preferred teeth of silver, gold, or mother of pearl.
  4. False teeth have been around as early as 700 B.C. when the Etruscans made false teeth out of ivory and bone. 
  5. Hundreds of years ago, when false teeth were placed in the mouth, they were hand-carved and then tied in place with thread. If a person didn't have enough natural teeth remaining, anchoring false teeth was very hard. People who had full sets of dentures had to remove them when they wanted to eat.
  6. Evidence has shown that the first toothbrush dates as far back at 3500 BC to 3000 BC with chewing sticks were used in Babylonia. These chewing sticks were essentially a stick from an astringent tree with a frayed end that acted as bristles to clean teeth. These chewing sticks have also been found in ancient Egyptian tombs. Their predecessors are still commonly used in certain areas of the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and South America and are known as miswak or mswaki sticks.
  7. When excavating Ur in Mesopotamia, ornately decorated toothpicks were found that dated back to 3000 BC. Other archaeological digs have recovered various tree twigs, bird feathers, animal bones, and porcupine quills as the earliest toothbrushes and toothpicks. An ancient Sanskrit text on surgery dating back to the 6th century describes severe periodontal disease and stresses oral hygiene; “the stick for brushing the teeth should be either an astringent or pungent bitter. One of its ends should be chewed in the form of a brush. It should be used twice a day, taking care that the gums not be injured.” Pretty sound advice, even by current standards! Ancient Greek and Roman literature referenced the use of toothpicks to keep their mouths clean, and ancient Roman aristocrats kept special slaves for the sole purpose of cleaning their teeth. Imagine that job!
  8. Ancient Egyptians were making a “tooth powder” as far back as 5000 B.C.E. It was made from ox hooves, myrrh, eggshell fragments, and pumice. No device was found with the remnants of the tooth powder, which is why it is assumed that the finger was the first actual toothbrush. Other early tooth powders contained mixtures of powdered salt, pepper, mint leaves, and iris flowers. In Roman times, urine was used as a base for toothpaste. And since urine contains ammonia it was likely an effective whitening agent. In later times, homemade tooth powder was made of chalk, pulverized brick and salt. It is said that Napoleon Bonaparte regularly brushed his teeth with an opium-based toothpaste. In 1873, Colgate mass-produced the first toothpaste in a jar called Crème Dentifrice. By 1896, Colgate Dental Cream was packaged in collapsible tubes. Finally, by 1900, a paste of hydrogen peroxide and baking soda was developed, and by 1914 fluoride was introduced and added to the majority of toothpastes on the market at that time.
  9. Researchers have found floss and toothpick grooves in the teeth of prehistoric humans. But it wasn’t until 1815 when a New Orleans dentist named Levi Spear Parmly promoted flossing with a piece of silk thread that floss really gained notoriety. Levi went on to be credited for inventing the first form of dental floss. By 1882 the Codman and Shurtleft Company of Randolph, Massachusetts began mass-producing unwaxed silk floss for commercial use. In 1898 Johnson & Johnson received the first patent for dental floss. Dr. Charles C. Bass then developed nylon floss, which performed better than silk because of its elasticity. Today floss is still made of nylon.
  10. From as early as 5000 B.C. we see some of the first references to Dental practice that has been recorded. In this particular instance, we can look upon an ancient Sumerian reference of “tooth worms” which were believed back then to have bored holes in human teeth, causing tooth decay and extreme pain. References to tooth worms could also be found in ancient Egypt, India, and China.
  11. This was a common legend even as far as the 8th century in Europe, where dentists would often try to smoke out the worms with a mixture of charcoal and beeswax, directing the fumes into a cavity with a funnel. The hole was then sealed with powdered henbane and gum mastic, which likely would have applied at least temporary relief from the pain as henbane was considered a mild narcotic. Usually though, the tooth would have to be removed outright. Many dentists of the times confused the nerves in the tooth with tooth worms, causing a very painful and extremely unnecessary operation removing both the tooth and nerves. 
  12. As you know, tooth whitening is common practice today. What you may not know, is that it is a centuries-old trend. European barber-surgeons of the Middle Ages would sand off outer layers of their patients’ tooth enamel, and coat the teeth with acetic acid to create a whitening effect. It was successful cosmetically, but it also led to a mouth full of rotten teeth as there was no enamel left to protect the teeth from the corrosive properties found in foods.
  13. Up until the Meiji era in Japan, blackened teeth were considered beautiful. Using a method known as Ohaguro, teeth were painted with a sort of black lacquer that actually helped to preserve teeth like today’s dental sealants. The lacquer was made of dissolved iron and acetic acid. This practice was mostly seen in Japanese women, but occasionally men took part as well.
  14. Clark Gable, the actor most well- known for his lead role in Gone with the Wind, had a terrible gum infection that forced him into a set of dentures by age 32. He suffered gum problems when he was young, and then a bout of pyorrhea – a severe periodontal disease – in 1933 that led to the extraction of most all of his teeth. He was fitted for a denture plate while in recovery, but the infection had returned leading to further hospitalization, this time necessitating the removal of his gall bladder. After recuperating, he received a full set of dentures and returned to work. He was known on film sets for his bad halitosis, an unfortunate outcome of his periodontal issues.
  15. The Maya civilization has been shown to have used the earliest known examples of endosseous implants (implants embedded into bone). While excavating Maya burial sites in Honduras in 1931, archaeologists found a fragment of mandible of Maya origin, dating from about 600 AD. This mandible, which is considered to be that of a woman in her twenties, had three tooth-shaped pieces of shell placed into the sockets of three missing lower incisor teeth.
  16. John Greenwood (1760-1819) was the son of Isaac Greenwood, the first native-born American dentist. John was responsible for designing Washington’s famous dentures from hippopotamus tusk. A letter from John Greenwood to Lt. General George Washington on his denture charges, dated 1799, is in the A.D. Black History of Dentistry Collection at Northwestern University.
  17. The Operator for Teeth was published in 1685. It was the first dental book by Charles Allen. There are only two known copies of the 1685 edition — one is in the library of the College of Dentistry at New York University and the other is in York Minster.
  18. In 1816, Auguste Taveau developed his own dental amalgam from silver coins and mercury, but he did not use the amalgam until ten years later. Eventually, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) declared dental amalgam as a medical device and currently regulates it.
  19. The first time nitrous oxide was used as an anesthetic drug in the treatment of a patient was when dentist Horace Wells, with assistance by Gardner Quincy Colton and John Mankey Riggs, demonstrated insensitivity to pain from a dental extraction on 11 December 1844. Wells was grateful, as he would lose sleep over the pain he caused to his dental patients.
  20. Dentists and doctors used other objects to fill teeth over the centuries, including stone chips, turpentine resin, gum, metals, cork, lead, and gold foil. After truly effective dental cement was developed, baked porcelain (a hard, white ceramic) inlays came into use for filling large cavities. These were first described by B. Wood in 1862.
  21. The first woman who graduated in the field of dentistry was Miss Lucy B. Hobbs of New York. She matriculated in the Cincinnati Dental College in the fall of 1864. Having received her diploma, she opened an office in Iowa; from thence she removed to Chicago, and practiced successfully.
  22. The first use of dental records in the identification of victims of mass disaster was probably the fire at the Vienna Opera House in 1878. Dental remains were also used to identify some of the 126 dead in a fire in Paris in 1897, which prompted the writing of the first textbook on forensic dentistry by the pioneering figure Oscar Amoedo. Since then, forensic odontology has been used to identify the victims of many other major incidents such as plane crashes, fires, and terrorist attacks.
  23. Dr. C. Edmund Kells became a pioneer in the profession of dentistry and medicine with his numerous inventions and publications. His most significant invention was the surgical aspirator for dental and medical surgery, still utilized today. Kells was also one of the first dentists to hire a female dental assistant and the first to expose a dental radiograph in the U.S. in 1896. His x-ray experiments caused the loss of most of his left arm. He committed suicide at age 72 in 1928.
  24. Fluoride research had its beginnings in 1901, when a young dental student, Frederick McKay, arrived in Colorado Springs to learn that scores of his patients had brown stains on their teeth, but that those teeth were resistant to decay. It was years later, in 1930, when it was discovered that flourine was in the water, and in other springs where this phenomenon occurred. Today, fluoride continues to be dental science’s main weapon in the battle against tooth decay.
  25. The modern incarnation of the dental drill is the air turbine handpiece, developed by John Patrick Walsh (later knighted) and members of the staff of the Dominion Physical Laboratory (DPL) Wellington, New Zealand, in 1949. Dr. John Borden developed it in America and it was first commercially manufactured and distributed by the DENTSPLY Company as the Borden Airotor in 1957.
  26. In 1958 in Des Moines, Iowa, John Naughton sold his first full-reclining dental chair for $800, delivering it personally in a hearse. He incorporated his Den-Tal-Eze Manufacturing Co. in 1961. Within three years, annual sales reached $1 million and made old sit-down dental chairs obsolete. In 1969, Naughton sold his venture to his employees for more than $8 million and retired at age 53.
  27. Although there was a sudden massive surge of patients with tooth decay the year cola was launched (late nineteenth century), it wasn’t until 2004 that a study showed that non-cola soft drinks caused two to five times the damage as darker drinks, such as Coke, Pepsi, and Dr. Pepper. Additionally, root beer proved to be the safest soft drink tested.

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