The Origins of Dentistry

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Surely, if there is a weak link in the human genome, it is our teeth. Few people alive today have never known the dentist’s drill or experienced a tooth extraction.

Teeth are routinely exposed to a number of hazards from the time they first erupt from the gums to the time dentures are fitted.

Over the centuries, people have tried, often unsuccessfully to prevent and treat tooth decay. It is significant that almost as soon as writing developed, troubles with the teeth were mentioned.

Ancient Dentistry

One of the more amusing recipes for a dental cleanser comes from Ancient Rome, where using a frayed stick to rub the ashes of mice over the teeth was thought to be an effective way to prevent caries.

A very early example of a tooth filling comes from Italy. Evidently, some 6,500 years ago, a man had a cracked tooth filled with beeswax. Although this filling was not done to remove decay, but rather as a remedy for an injury, it still shows that people were trying to relieve dental pain at a very early point in our history.

Even earlier evidence of tooth drilling has been found in Pakistan, where a bow drill was used to drill out the part of a tooth that was decayed. Whether a filling of any kind was used is unknown, however, as none has been found in association with the dental treatment there.

Early Egyptian civilization developed a number of dental treatments, and history’s first “official” dentist was Hesi-Re, who practiced not only as a dentist, but as a doctor. It’s recorded that he tended to the medical and dental needs of the royal family.

Several hundred years later, an Egyptian performed what was history’s first root canal by opening two holes beneath the root of a tooth to treat an abscess.

Both the Ancient Greeks and Romans concerned themselves with dentistry and procedures such as extractions using forceps were common. Both civilizations had treatments for dental pain and the Romans used skills that the Etruscans provided to make bridgework and crowns.

In those days, false teeth were often made of the teeth of dead persons or of ivory, gold or wood. Rome even had a law that required gold teeth to be removed from a corpse before it was cremated or buried.

Modern Dentistry Emerges

Up until the 18th century, it was widely believed that a tooth worm was the cause of tooth decay. Having no understanding of bacteria, people had believed for thousands of years that a worm would bore into teeth, resulting in cavities and pain.

Although no one had ever seen one of these worms, this myth persisted until the French dentist and physician Pierre Fauchard used a microscope and a magnifying glass to examine decayed teeth and was able to report that there were no such worms.

Fauchard is responsible for the basis of nearly every dental practice used today:

    • Fillings for cavities were introduced by Fauchard.
    • He established sugar as a cause of tooth decay.
    • He modernized bridgework and developed prosthesis for those with deformities or trauma to the mouth.
    • Dentists kept procedures secret until Fauchard wrote an extensive book on the treatment of dental conditions.
    • A means of straightening teeth was also put forth by Fauchard, using wires and silk thread.
    • The seating of the dentist behind the patient, to reduce apprehension for the patient, and the use of bright lighting were also introduced by Fauchard.

After Fauchard, new developments in dentistry seemed to simply pile up one upon another during the 18th and 19th centuries.

While it might be thought that dentistry has gone about as far as possible, research is being done on nanotechnology for treating tooth decay and on the possibility of actually growing new teeth to replace those that have been extracted or irredeemably damaged.

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