Dental history 101

The history of dentistry from ancient times to today’s hi-tech world is filled with colourful stories, quirky remedies and some great material for trivia buffs.

To begin, consider the following sobering fact: over the last 4,000 years of civilization, the first college to train dentists formally opened its doors in Baltimore in 1840, less than 200 years ago! So how, you ask, were dentists trained before that? Most learned in the clinics or homes of existing dentists, through a crude form of apprenticeship. This, of course, was before licensure, so anyone who wanted to call himself a ‘dental surgeon’ could hang a sign and do so (we call this ‘wild west’ dentistry).

If you go back a few hundred years before that, dentistry as we know it was not performed by dentists, but by tradesmen known as ‘barber-surgeons’. These multi-talented individuals cut hair, provided shaves, stitched wounds and pulled teeth!

The man credited as the father of modern dentistry is Pierre Fauchard, an 18th century French physician. His book, The Surgeon Dentist, written in 1728, was considered to be the first scientific dental textbook. It is because of Fauchard that those in our profession are known as dentists, which comes from ‘dente’, the French word for tooth. Otherwise we might be called ‘toothists’ (try saying that with a frozen lip or tongue!).

Did you know that Paul Revere, one of the most famous figures in the American Revolution, was a dentist? In colonial America, there were no full-time dentists, so it was typical to see the local blacksmith, wigmaker, barber or anyone who practised dentistry on the side for one’s dental needs. Revere was also a master engraver and silversmith, and did fillings, cleanings, bridges and dentures as a part-time hobby.

Believe it or not, the history of flossing (you had to know I was going to work flossing into this article) goes back 3,300 years to Egypt at the time of King Tut. There are graphic depictions on the walls of King Tut’s tomb showing handmaids using some form of silk thread to clean between the king’s teeth.

The modern founder of floss as we know it was Levi Spear Parmley, a dentist from New Orleans. The first patent for dental floss was issued to the Johnson and Johnson Company in 1898 – the company still makes floss today.

On the subject of floss, have you ever wondered why cotton candy is sometimes referred to as candy floss? Interestingly, machine-spun cotton candy was invented by Nashville dentist William Morrison in 1897. Perhaps a small conflict of interest?

Dentists, being familiar with mechanical principles and synthetic materials, have been credited with numerous other inventions. William Semple, a dentist from Ohio, invented chewing gum in 1869, with the intention that people would be able to clean their teeth with it. In the same year, dentist Thomas Welch developed an unfermented grape juice he called ‘Dr. Welch’s Unfermented Wine’, known today as Welch’s Grape Juice.

At this point you may be wondering if Canadian dentists have contributed to this formidable list of inventions. Fear not – in 1869, Toronto dentist J.W. Elliot invented the rotary snow plow (how truly Canadian!).

What about current dental technology? Much of what we take for granted is relatively young. For example, high speed air-driven drills came onto the market in 1959. Before that, dentists used the much slower belt-driven ‘pulley’ drills. Local anesthetics have only been in common use since the 1960s – before that, it was “hang on tight.” White fillings were developed in the 1950s, but the current light-cured version only in the 1980s. One hundred years ago, in 1913, there were no dental X-rays and no antibiotics to treat dental infections. And, of course, the massaging dental chair was introduced in 2003.

Think about all of that the next time you have an approaching dental appointment. Aren’t you glad you’re living in this century, and not in the last one?


Dr. Allan Katchky is a dentist who practises in the East End 416-694-2220

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