A History of Mending Teeth

Teeth are a rather clever invention of nature. They enable us to cut, part and chew as we please. Grown separately the teeth are independent of one another - they have different functions which they continue to work at if one is destroyed. Still, they are far from perfect, and this is where dentistry comes in.

Toothaches have probably accompanied man for as long as teeth have. 25 000 years old skulls of Cro-Magnon people have shown evidence of tooth decay, and tooth infection seems to have been a common cause of death in old cultures. Smouldering teeth were often blamed on a mischievous little toothworm, which is first mentioned on a Sumerian tablet from 5000 BC. The pain was also commonly considered a sign from angry gods.

Stone-age people probably did not extract teeth, and ancient peoples preferred to relieve the pain rather than treating the cause of it. A good reason for this was the large risk for inflammation and the absence of anaesthetics. The ancient Chinese used acupuncture to treat the pain, while in Mesopotamian culture herbs and minerals were used.

In Egypt we have found a lower jaw dated from ca. 2800 BC with two holes drilled through it - presumably to drain a tooth abscess. And ever so slowly, the subjects our dentists so like to lecture us on made their appearance. From Assyria come orders of extracting: The inflammation wherewith his head, his hands and feet are inflamed is due to his teeth. His teeth must be extracted, it is on this account he is inflamed. from a clay tablet written by Asur-Bani-Pal's court physician in 400 BC and brushing teeth:

If a man's mouth has mouth trouble, thou shalt mix Lolium in well water, introduce salt, alum, and vinegar therein. Thou shalt leave it under the stars. In the morning, thou shalt wind a linen round his forefinger; without a meal thou shalt cleanse his mouth.

The pensive Greeks also afforded some thoughts on bad teeth, and doctors such as Hippocrates of Cos tried to find physical reasons for toothache rather than mythological ones. Aristotle even suggested that small parts of fig that putrified in the teeth could be to blame for toothache, but this idea was discarded by his contemporaries. Greek theories spread and were taken into practical use by the Etruscans and later the Romans. In several Roman graves there have been found corpses wearing intricated dentures made out of gold, and false teeth of bone and ivory were described as well. Romans also had extra painful teeth surgically removed.

Dentistry continued to develop during the Islamic dominance of the old world. The first documented tooth filling was done by the Persian physician Rhazes (860-932). The cement was made out of mastic and alum but was not very permanent. Abulcasis of Cordova (1013 - 1106) wrote learned books on subjcts like splinting teeth and making bridges, and recommended polishing teeth white with fine abrasives. In general, Muslims had better teeth than other Europeans because their religion told them to keep them clean - to do so they employed a Siwak stick, still used in some Muslim countries today.

The people of Medieval Europe built up their dental care in their own way. Most of it was crude and painful - many a time multi-purpose barbers would heal hurting teeth simply by pulling them out - but a primitive dental drill was also developed, and naked nerves were covered by temporary tooth fillings made out of soft material. In the 1400s, Italian sources first mention gold leaf for filling teeth. Later on, the French used lead.

During the Renaissance all sciences were systematically improved. Learned works were published on dentistry, and perhaps the most important work was that of the French surgeon Pierre Fauchard (1678-1761), A Treatise on Teeth. He described all he knew about oral anatomy, disease, and treatment. Many others later expanded on his work, and he was later called The Father of Dentistry.

An important event in the history of dentistry happened when dentist Horace Wells of Connecticut observed how people reacted to inhaling nitrous oxide - laughing gas - in 1844. A new concept of inhalation analgesia and anesthesia was founded. Greene Vardiman Black (1831-1915), on the other hand, went technical with the development of the dental drill driven by a foot engine. He also suggested that tooth infections were caused by bacteria.

Modern dentistry stems from all these basic discoveries. While an appointment with the dentist may still fill one with mortal dread, it is no longer an actual threat to personal health. Teeth are a rather clever invention of nature. Dentistry is a rather clever invention of man.

Den"tist*ry (?), n.

The art or profession of a dentist; dental surgery.


© Webster 1913.

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