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Dentistry Throughout History: Origins & Highlights
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When you think about toothache and your own painful experience of this condition it is pertinent to consider a time without dentistry. Imagine suffering from the debilitating effects of toothache and dental problems when dentists, as we know them, did not exist. Frightening stuff isn’t it? We, as human beings, rely heavily upon our teeth to deal with the challenges of sustaining life via consuming enough protein. Whether carnivore or vegetarian working molars are an essential part of the deal. Dentistry throughout history: Origins & highlights are therefore an integral part of our journey through time to where we sit and chew today.

The mouth is a special place within animals and human beings, with the mix of hard teeth and soft tongue and insides of cheeks. This salivary realm poses specific challenges for health professionals in the face of wounds and infections. Many of us have experienced the tooth ache and infection which impacts harshly upon our general health and wellbeing.

One cannot separate dental from the rest of the body, as the mouth is inextricably linked to our overall state of health. What then do the pages of history have to offer us in terms of wisdom derived from the challenges of dental care down through the ages?

Neanderthal Dentists

There is evidence via archaeological research that Neanderthals around 130, 000 years ago were treating their own dental problems. This other species of Hominid, sadly extinct, was originally thought to be the stupid cousin but new evidence is turning this misassumption on its head. Whether their dentists charged as much as our own is sadly indecipherable, but the fact that they dealt with tooth ache can be seen from teeth fossils.

I imagine that issues pertaining to the over consumption of sugar and processed carbohydrates were not at the forefront of Neanderthal dental problems, but they did face their own specific challenges in this space. Examination of these fossils revealed toothpick grooves and scratches on premolars and enamel, which indicate prehistoric dental activity.

Neanderthals were chewing on poplar for pain relief, which is a hardwood containing the same active ingredient as aspirin. This was, also a natural way to remove plaque and bad bacteria from the oral cavity. Remember that we Homo sapiens do carry some Neanderthal DNA and perhaps some of this flourishes inside every dentist today. I do remember some hairy forearms manoeuvring sharp instruments within my oral cavity during trips to the dentist in my childhood.

Homo Sapiens & Dentistry

There is archaeological evidence from Mehgarh in Pakistan dating from around seven millennia ago which shows teeth having been drilled with flint tools. We can assume that every civilisation and culture would have developed some rudimentary dental practices to deal with the universal problem of tooth ache and related issues. A 6, 500 year old tooth containing bees wax as a filling was found in Slovenia. Ancient Egyptians were hard at work in the dentistry field as evidenced from remains dating back some five millennia. Fillings, replacement teeth with gold wire, and special medicines pertaining to dentistry have been discovered in Egypt. Egyptian texts tell of improved health after tooth extraction, and a Middle Dynasty (2100 BCE) papyrus mentions an association between tooth pain and female reproductive diseases. In the Assyrian capital of Nineveh, a text about the health of King Ashurbanipal (669-626 BCE) observes pains he experienced in arms, head, and feet were cured by tooth extraction. Hippocrates (460-377 BCE) in Greece, hypothesized on the treatment of rheumatism by tooth extraction. The Roman thinker and writer Celsus (50 CE) recorded information about treatments for dental problems in his era.

Dentistry comes from the Latin ‘dens’ meaning tooth. Odontology is from the Greek ‘odous’ meaning tooth. These two civilisations, the Roman and Greek, are the bedrock of western traditions in learning and medicine in particular. The ancient Greeks established institutions and pathways for the healing arts, which laid the foundations for the schools and universities in Christendom to teach medicine over the centuries. We owe much to the past and the dental medical tradition is no exception.

Medieval Times & Dental Practices

During Medieval times travelling barber surgeons would extract teeth via instruments like the ‘dental pelican’. I imagine this had something to do with widening mouths if the name is any inference. Early dental instruments and those involved in the then popular practice of torture would have shared many properties I venture. John Hunter in 1778, as Surgeon Extraordinary to the King of England wrote in his work on dentistry entitled The Natural History of the Human Teeth:

“The importance of the teeth is such that they deserve our utmost attention, as well with respect to the preservation of them when in a healthy state, as to the methods of curing them when diseased.”

The Father of Modern Dentistry

The name Pierre Fauchard (1678-1761) stands out prominently in the annals of dentistry from the eighteenth century onwards. This French physician wrote copiously on teeth and dentistry. His book Le Chirugien Dentiste, Ou Traite Des Dents or The Surgeon Dentist describes oral anatomy and various treatments for dental problems. Fauchard’s knowledge and desire to share it was a game changer for the practice and understanding of dentistry. He is considered to be the father of modern dentistry. Fauchard created false teeth out of bone and ivory and utilised a spring to fit them inside the mouth. He also used artificial crowns. Later false teeth were created out of porcelain, which reacted less bitterly with the saliva in the mouth of the recipient to reduce bad taste and odours. We have much to be grateful for and, perhaps, take things for granted in this regard. Our predilection for ignoring history robs us of the gratitude we all should be feeling for the state of modern dentistry in our times.

When you consider the challenges that dental issues presented to early human beings it is a marvellous achievement that we find ourselves where we are today. Teeth are hard and hard to get at when they don’t work properly. Technology and the materials developed over the centuries have gone glove in hand with the amazing evolution of dental practices and treatments. It is a good news story for all of us who have had to overcome the terrible tooth ache and other manifestations of dental problems and associated infection.

The Future of Dentistry

Dentistry was very much about tooth ache, infection, tooth extraction, and replacement teeth down through the ages. The present state of dentistry is still involved with these basic requirements, but it is, also, morphing into the cosmetic side of things. The focus on the appearance of the mouth, teeth, and smile are very much front and centre in the 21C. White teeth and bright, white smiles are associated culturally with beauty in wealthy western nations around the globe. Hollywood stars on screen have unnaturally white teeth and their legions of fans want them too. The uber bright white smile is de rigueur for images seen on social media pages across all channels. Dentists spend a sizeable chunk of their time performing teeth whitening treatments and teeth straightening procedures. The future of dentistry may well involve human enhancement procedures to improve looks and install artificial intelligence devices.

Note: All content and media on the Elevate Dental website and social media channels are created and published online for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice and should not be relied on as health or personal advice.


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