History of Dentistry

Have you ever wondered where the field of dentistry came from or when the first dentists were brave enough to stick their hands into someone else’s mouth? You might be interested to know that the field of dentistry is over 9,000 years old and that the first dentists began fighting the evils of tooth decay in the Indus Valley (the area that now makes up India and Pakistan) around 7000 B.C. Unfortunately, these early dentists did not have access to procaine (Novocain), nitrous oxide, or even aspirin, and many of their procedures, as a result, were more than slightly painful. In fact, the first drill, which was known as the bow drill, appeared approximately 8,800 years before procaine and nitrous oxide. In order to get an idea of what this early drill was like, try to picture a bow like the one you would use to shoot an arrow, but smaller and with a drill attached to its string that turns when the bow is moved back and forth, certainly not something that you would want in your mouth.

To make matters worse, no one actually knew what caused tooth decay or any of the other problems that the people of the time were experiencing with their teeth. The popular beliefs in the early history of dentistry were that tooth decay was caused by “tooth worms” that would bore holes into an individual’s teeth, evil spirits in an individual’s mouth, or a fluid imbalance that would cause an individual’s body to destroy itself from the inside out. These explanations lingered for thousands of years and were still around long after the first dental bridges came into use in 700 B.C.

Many of the facts that dentists now know about our teeth were not actually discovered until the early part of the 15th century. Up until this time, most of the dental procedures were performed by monks or barbers. (A barber was considered a jack-of-all-trades during the Middle Ages, and many functioned as dentists, hair cutters, and surgeons, with varying degrees of expertise.) The beliefs on which the field of dentistry had been based for over 6,000 years finally began to change, however, when the Artzney Buchlein was published in 1530. The Artzney Buchlein, whose author is unknown, was one of the first books to discuss dentistry in detail, and it caused many to look at dentistry as more of a science rather than a matter of superstition. The new way in which the Artzney Buchlein portrayed dentistry also encouraged medical professionals to specialize in the study and treatment of oral diseases and disorders.
This new view on dentistry ultimately led Charles Allen to publish the first dentistry textbook, Operator for the Teeth, in 1685 and led Pierre Fauchard, a French doctor commonly considered the father of modern dentistry, to publish his book The Dentist Surgeon, a Treatise on Teeth in 1728. The Dentist Surgeon was the first book that attempted to prove that tooth decay was related to sugar and not worms or spirits, and the first to discuss in detail some of the more modern dental procedures that a dentist could use. In fact, The Dentist Surgeon discussed almost everything that a dentist might need to know and included information about subjects such as braces, cleanings, fillings, and the procedures that a dentist could use to make a patient more comfortable. Many of the procedures and tools discussed in The Dentist Surgeon are still used today, but these were not formally taught until the 1840s, when the first dental schools were established.

The first of these dental schools was the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery, which opened its doors in Baltimore, Maryland, on February 1, 1840. The school’s opening eventually led to the establishment of a series of dental schools in the United States. These schools not only allowed American dentists to learn the skills that they needed to practice, but also allowed dentists from across the world to invent the tools and refine the procedures that we still use to protect our teeth today.