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Today, it is easy to pick up a phone and find a dental professional that can help to fix any issues with your teeth but it wasn’t always that way. Modern dentistry has evolved over thousands of years, and evidence has been found of dubious remedies for tooth pain by early civilizations. Finally, in the 17th century, Pierre Fauchard, a French physician, started to take a scientific approach to dental health. Fauchard recorded his detailed observations and was the first person to publish a textbook full of comprehensive dental information.
Dentistry in the United States used to be practiced by the same people that would give you a haircut. They were referred to as barber-surgeons, and they often caused more harm than they did good. They were known for their crude practices as well as handing out bizarre advice to their patients. For instance, they might tell a patient to pick their gums, in order to soothe aching teeth, with the bill of an osprey.
The Baltimore College of Dental Surgery was founded in 1840 and this was considering a turning point in the field of dentistry. The Baltimore College of Dental Surgery essentially laid the foundation for the dentistry that we are familiar with in current times. The school still hosts a selection of specimens that were assembled by professors in the early days of the school. This collection still offers some incredible educational opportunities and gives a look into how far the field of dentistry has come.
Dentistry in the 1800s
1816 – The first fillings are developed by Auguste Taveau, and are made of silver coins mixed with mercury.
1839 – Vulcanized rubber is discovered by Charles Goodyear. This leads to denture bases becoming more affordable for the average consumer. Previously, the bases were created out of gold.
1840 – Nitrous oxide is first demonstrated as a means of sedation by Horace Wells. Ether anesthesia for surgery is first demonstrated by Thomas Morton. Chapin Harris and Horace Hayden invent modern dentistry. They found the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery, and found the American Society of Dental Surgeons, the world’s first dental society which eventually became the American Dental Association.
1866 – Lucy Hobbs graduates from the Ohio College of Dental Surgery and becomes the first female to obtain a DDS degree.
1871 – The first mechanized dental drill is patented by James Beal Morrison; it was an extremely slow moving drill and a filling could take a few hours to complete.
1870s – Baked porcelain inlays also began being used to fill larger cavities.
1890s – The microbial basis of dental cavities are first described by Willoughby Miller. This leads the way for awareness about cavity prevention and allowed oral care companies to begin marketing oral health products for home use.
1895 – The manufacturing process of silver fillings and cavity preparation are standardized by G.V. Black.
1896 – The x-ray, discovered by Wilhelm Roentgen, is adapted for use in dentistry by Edmund Kells. Washington Wentworth Sheffield invents the toothpaste tube.
Throughout the 1800s, there were some major breakthroughs in dentistry. These continued well into the 1900s, during which time Penicillin is invented, composite fillings are created, and the first fully reclining dental chair is invented, in addition to many other dental advancements. Today, instead of visiting a barber-surgeon, and enduring dental care with crude tools and no anesthesia, we can easily pick up the phone and find a dentist with all the modern conveniences.
To learn more about the history of dentistry, consult the following resources.
- Personal Hygiene in America
- Opening Up the Tooth Fairy File: Exploring a Dental History Collection
- American Academy of the History of Dentistry Database
- Out of the Past of Dental History
- The National Museum of Dentistry
- The History of Dentistry Research Guide
- The History of Dentistry Timeline
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