With all of the advanced tools, medicines and methods associated with oral surgery and dentistry today, you may be surprised to learn that both of these practices have had long histories. At the Center for Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery, we live and breathe the practice of oral surgery, so naturally, we are pretty interested in learning about the history of it as well.
The problems that people can experience with their teeth or jaw are nothing new and solutions for some of these problems have been around for thousands of years. While the solutions have (luckily) changed since the early days, the approach has been the same: To improve a person’s quality of life through oral health. At the Center of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery, our approach is the same as the dentists and oral surgeons from the early days of dentistry. If you’ve ever wondered how they handled cavities, tooth pain or missing teeth thousands of years ago, then keep reading!
Prior to the introduction of agriculture to our societies, humans didn’t really have much of an issue with tooth decay, according to historians. When our societies began to adopt farming a little over 10,000 years ago, that’s when historians believe the incidents of tooth decay began increasing and the need for early dentistry techniques became needed.
Up until recently, the earliest known use of dentistry was believed to be between 13,820 and 14,160 years ago. Historians believe this because of an infected tooth that was found in Italy that showed signs of being partially cleaned with flint tools. Recently though, it was discovered that as far as 130,000 years ago Neanderthals were utilizing rough versions of dentistry tools on their teeth. Interestingly, the earliest evidence of a tooth being filled was from around 6,500 years ago in Slovenia. The filling was made using beeswax – not something you’d find in your modern dentist’s office! There’s also evidence from Malta and the Middle East suggesting that early humans also practiced some form of dentistry and oral care.
There is also evidence that suggests humans were implementing oral surgery to replace missing teeth as far back as 4,000 years ago! Remains found from ancient China show carved bamboo pegs being used to replace missing teeth and ancient Egyptian remains have been found with precious metals carved into pegs serving as implants.
While most people, even children, have a rough understanding of where cavity and tooth decay comes from, early humans did not have the benefit of years of knowledge and science on their side. As late as the 14th century AD, people across multiple countries and cultures believed that worms were the culprit of tooth decay. You read that right, worms! Evidence of the belief in ‘tooth worms’ causing tooth decay has been found in Ancient Sumerian texts, as well as in ancient China, Japan, India and Egypt.
During the Middle Ages, oral surgery and dental procedures were usually done only to treat an ailment of some kind. For example, dental extractions would be performed to alleviate pain a person was experiencing from a decayed or impacted tooth. Despite the practice of dental extractions, dentistry was not a recognized profession during this time. Extractions and other dentistry procedures were not performed by dentists or oral surgeons like they are today, but instead by barbers or general physicians. Barbers would commonly remove a person’s tooth if they were experiencing chronic tooth pain or chronic infections. Today, we have medicines and antibiotics to treat tooth infections, but back then, before medicines were available, a more dependable solution was to just remove whatever was infected. A tool called a pelican’s beak (because it resembled one) was used to pull out diseased or infected teeth during this time. Luckily this was replaced by more modern tools eventually.
The practice of modern dentistry was developed during the time between 1650 and 1800. During the 1700s, a French surgeon, Pierre Fauchard, developed the science of dentistry and is now regarded as the father of modern dentistry. Since the field was just getting started, Pierre and other practitioners of dentistry during this time often had to repurpose tools from other industries to create what they needed. It wasn’t uncommon for tools from watchmakers, jewelers and even barbers to be fashioned into dentistry tools.
It was also during this time period that advancements such as dental fillings as a treatment for cavities were introduced. A lot of advancements were made in the world of dentistry because the amount of attention and exploration people were giving it had increased. Scientists were now beginning to understand not only solutions for dental ailments, but also the causes behind many of them.
Fauchard was also the person behind the introduction and development of dental implants. He explored different methods for replacing missing teeth as well as different materials that could be used for the implant. During this time, missing teeth were often replaced with bone or ivory that was carved into blocks.
Many people are often surprised to learn that braces were developed during this time too! In the early 1700s, Fauchard invented braces using gold and discovered that teeth could be corrected using wires, which were made out of waxed linen or silk threads.
In the 19th century dentistry shifted from a trade to being recognized as a profession. This gave way to the various disciplines within dentistry and also provided more opportunities for further scientific developments to be made within the field.
All of the trial and error, curiosity and dedication to preserving oral health has enabled us to get to where we are now. From ancient societies using tools to keep their teeth clean, to barbers in the middle ages extracting customer’s teeth – the history of oral surgery and dentistry is filled with many interesting moments throughout time!
At the Center for Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery we’re here to keep your smile healthy and luckily, we have much better tools today!
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