Today, our knowledge of dentistry not only allows us to keep our teeth clean—and hopefully in our mouths for the rest of our lives—it also enables us to modify them till they look just as we would like.

For patients of the past however, a trip to the dentist meant neither of these things.

Early dentistry: Down memory lane


The earliest evidence of dentistry is from 7000BC, in the Indus Valley civilisation in India. They had primitive tools like drills made of wood for treating tooth decay.

Then in 5000BC, in Sumer (modern day Iraq), tooth decay was blamed on tooth worms, which it was claimed, bore holes in the teeth and hid. Reportedly, some ancient doctors even mistook nerves as tooth worms and tried to yank them out.

Later, in Ancient Greece, both philosophers Aristotle and Hippocrates explained, in their writing, that teeth extraction was the cure to mouth pain. Since the middle ages, teeth extraction has been done. In the middle ages however, teeth extractions were not conducted by medical authorities; rather, by barbers.

Pulling medieval teeth: A dentist with silver forceps and a necklace of large teeth, taken from the Omne Bonum, published in the 14th century. Photo credit: British Library/Robana/REX
Pulling medieval teeth: A dentist with silver forceps and a necklace of large teeth, taken from the Omne Bonum, published in the 14th century. Photo credit: British Library/Robana/REX

Hair cutters would use what was called as a ‘dental pelican’ in the 14th century and then a ‘dental key’ in the 15th century to extract teeth. They were similar to modern day forceps—though, the teeth were not extracted to prevent the spread of infection; but to simply alleviate pain. Without anaesthesia however, it was excruciating.

To deal with hygiene, people would simple rinse their mouths with water, wipe their teeth with a cloth and then chew herbs like mint to keep breath as fresh as possible. Wine, vinegar and alum were used as mouthwash.

The role of George Washington in the field of dentistry


Between 1650 and 1800, modern dentistry first began to take shape—although the concept of teeth worms was not rubbished until the 1700s. The man who began this revolution was French physician Pierre Fauchard, also known as ‘The Father of Modern Dentistry’.

The brain behind many of the procedures which are still used today, Fauchard developed the concept of dental filings and propounded the idea that sugar was a source of tooth decay. Yet despite this, he was also the person to recommend urine as a mouthwash.

In the 1790s however, a more unexpected man had a tremendous impact on modern day dentistry: America’s founding father, George Washington. Washington was unfortunate, in which by the time he became president, he only had one tooth left.

George Washington was famously tight-lipped because of his poor teeth.
George Washington was famously tight-lipped because of his poor teeth.

This would not look good in front of the British from whom America had only just been granted freedom—Europe was superior in its dental practices and keeping up appearances was critically important because tooth loss was associated with gluttony, poor hygiene, bad breath, lack of self-discipline, and worse, syphilis.

Washington would not only incur their ridicule at falling into the stereotype of Americans having bad teeth. He would also – by virtue of being its representative – be stigmatising the whole country. In the words of Jennifer Horn, a University of Delaware’s historian, “simply stated, Washington was the nation”.

Dentures were the start of modern dentistry


He therefore got a denture. A denture crafted from gold leaf, lead plates, hippopotamus ivory, and the teeth of cows, horses, and, most likely, his slaves. Washington had several dentures during the course of his lifetime. They had yellowed and mismatched teeth and grooves where springs pressed the dentures into the gum.

The lower half of a set of Washington’s dentures is seen at New York Academy of Medicine. Photo credit: Bob Tedeschi/Stat
The lower half of a set of Washington’s dentures is seen at New York Academy of Medicine. Photo credit: Bob Tedeschi/Stat

His first dentist was a pioneering Englishman, John Baker, who taught his techniques to a young John Greenwood. Greenwood would make the president’s dentures. However, eating and speaking with them was terribly painful. And since they were pressed to the gums – the dentures would fall out, if Washington opened his mouth too far.

Washington therefore spoke in the clipped and subdued style he was known for and would barely eat at state dinners. He did however drink a lot of wine, and his dentist noted that his dentures were hence, “very Black Ocationed by your soaking them in port wine, or by your drinking it”.

Many of Greenwood’s homemade dental tools, such as his ‘dental engine’, a foot-powered drill that he made from a spinning wheel, remain. Greenwood taught his sons his techniques. And as more and more people began understanding dentistry as a science, the world’s first dental college was established in 1840 – the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery, in America. Since then the rest has been a history of progress with the world’s first toothbrush being patented in 1857. In 1873, Colgate began to mass-produce toothpaste, and the first electric toothbrush was invented in Switzerland in 1939. MIMS

Read more:
In conversation: Dr Emmanuel Taylor on dental implants and how they improve quality of life in older patients
Tooth loss may be associated with other health problems
Should basic business courses be part of the dentistry curriculum?


Sources:
https://www.theguardian.com/society/gallery/2014/jun/16/a-history-of-dentistry-in-pictures#img-7
http://www.historyundressed.com/2008/07/history-of-hygiene-bathing-teeth.html
http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2012/12/the-history-of-dentistry/
https://www.statnews.com/2017/07/03/george-washington-teeth/