“A Trip to the Dentist ” Marjorie Paterson roots out the history behind our modern dental practices.


Back in my girlhood, I had high expectations of the forthcoming millennium.
I believed we would have landed on Mars by them; that cancer would be cured; that slums would be gone; that I would have met Elvis.
I thought we would have found how to end tooth decay and treatment would be minor and painless.
People argue that we could end teeth-rotting by giving up sugar. Not so.
The Sumerians, not noted sugar imbibers, endured toothache. Their records, from around 7,000 years ago, show that some of them believed the pain was caused by minute worms gnawing into their gums.
It is clear that ancient Egyptians suffered: some of their tombstones refer to
“tooth doctors” and papyrus records describe methods
used to alleviate the pain.

Later, Hippocrates studied teeth and their development and growth,
and recognized the part they played in our pronunciation.
He was the first person to link sweet food with dental decay, which was confirmed only in the late 19th century.
The Etruscans developed considerable skills in dentistry. They used gold bands to solder round teeth and to bridge gaps, as well as to hold replacements in place — teeth they obtained from oxen and humans.
During the great days of Rome in the first century, encyclopaedist Aulus
Cornelius Celsus produced a treatise on tooth extraction.
Around the same time, the noted wit Martial discussed the merits of quill versus wooden toothpicks. Galen of Pergamon took dentistry into the modern world when he developed a method of removing the decayed part of a tooth in order to save the whole.
He linked teeth to the bone structure of the body and recognized them as part of the central nervous system.
Galen’s influence spread to the great Arab thinkers of later times. In the ninth century, Rhazes spoke of filling cavities with “cement”, and Abulcasis recognized the relationship between tartar and gum disease.
He also devised instruments for scaling and trained his patients in
cleaning teeth.

The Arab influence spread through Moorish Spain, where specialized datastores arose in the 14th century.
But it was to be in Italy where the most attention was paid to the profession.
There, Giovanni de Arcoli wrote down 10 rules for dental hygiene. He was the first to recommend people clean their teeth after meals. He also advocated filling cavities with gold. Dentistry was now being
taken seriously, and publications on the subject appeared all round Europe.
By the late 16th century, it was a subject taught in French universities, and the country was the birthplace of the “father of modern dentistry”, Pierre Fauchard. His monumental work, The Surgeon Dentist”, was published in 1728.
John Hunter, the Scottish medical pioneer, did not neglect dentistry. His 1771 treatise, “The Natural History Of The Human Teeth”, has proven to be
the foundation of modern dental thinking.
But it was in the United States that the lead was really established. The first dental school opened in Baltimore in 1841, the American Society of Dental Surgery was established and the earliest standard instruments appeared.
The agony of early patients must have been unspeakable: the dentist
operated a drill by turning the handle with one hand and drilling with the other.

A treadle model appeared later, which sped matters up a bit, but it wasn’t until 1870 that the first electric drill was in use. False teeth had developed well over the same period — spurred on, oddly, by the Battle of Waterloo. Until then, people were wary of having unknown teeth placed in their mouths. After the battle, it was easier to sell replacement teeth as having come from the young men who had died on the field.
Early false teeth were made from plaster molds, with the teeth being crafted from wood or, more expensively, from ivory. These were notoriously ill-fitting, despite dentures having prongs or wire to attach them to the jaws. In the late 19th century, American William Miller demonstrated that decay
was caused by bacteria living on the carbohydrates in the mouth, and shortly afterward, a study showed that fluoride in water helps lower rates of tooth decay.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here