Braces, Dentures, and More: The History and Evolution of Dentistry

Braces, Dentures, and More: The History and Evolution of Dentistry

The history of dentistry dates back farther than you might think. It is one of the oldest medical professions. As long ago as 7,000 B.C. There are records of dentistry being performed in the Indus Valley.

The evolution of dentistry as a profession is not a simple straight line, however. There have been many twists and turns in the development of this field of medicine.

Modern times are no exception. Modern dental practice is very complex and changes from person to person, let alone place to place.

Here, we will break down the evolution of dentistry as a profession in order to better understand one of the world’s oldest medical practices.

The Start of Dentistry

Dentistry is an extremely old profession, dating back to 7,000 B.C. There is even a Sumerian text from 5,000 B.C. that discusses the topic. Of course, humanity’s understanding of dentistry was different back then. The Sumerian texts talk about “tooth worms” that caused tooth decay.

It took time for medicine to progress to the point where humans understood dentistry and the mouth better overall. It wasn’t until 2,600 B.C. that we got the first person considered a dentist, Hesy-Re, an Egyptian scribe. Back then the titles were a little different. On his tomb, he is simply called “the greatest of those who deal with teeth.”

Hesy-Re paved the way, but many, many dentists followed in his footsteps and refined the medical practice. After Hesy-Ra, humanity looked for more sophisticated solutions to tooth and mouth-related issues. The Greeks and Romans wrote extensively about oral hygiene, signaling a significant step in the evolution of dentistry as a profession.

This time period, around 200 A.D. may have also been the beginning of some types of dental services we imagine as strictly modern. For example, the Etruscans are said to have used dental techniques such as gold crowns and bridgework and the Romans had writings about how to deal with jaw fractures and stabilizing loose teeth.

All of this contributed to the evolution of dentistry as a profession, but it is still a long way from anything we would recognize as modern dentistry. Techniques and knowledge we take for granted hadn’t quite come along yet, so all of this belongs to the very early stages of the development of dentistry as a field of knowledge.

Dentistry as an Actual Profession

While there are early writings and records about oral health and certain dental practices, dentistry was not quite a profession yet. That took a little bit more time and progress.

One of the earliest steps in the evolution of dentistry as a profession was the development of a Guild of Barbers in France. This might not sound related, but at that time these barber-surgeons would do certain jobs like tooth extraction that we now associate with dentistry as a profession.

The profession and techniques of dentistry were still developing at this time. In 1530, the first book devoted entirely to dental practice was published. It included information on oral hygiene, tooth extraction, drilling, and replacement of gold fillings. These are procedures we naturally associate with dentistry in modern times, but it was still somewhat new back then.

In this time period, the average orthodontist was more a surgeon than a dentist like we might think of it. Many dental practices were focused on the surgical side of things.

Some specific practices sprang up somewhere along the evolution of dentistry as a profession. We will explore a few of these to see where common modern dental practices came from.

History of Dentures

Dentures and false teeth have a somewhat mythical status in society. People might think of George Washington’s supposed wooden teeth, for example.

However, the practice of replacing teeth with some sort of substitute is actually quite old, dating back to about the 7th century B.C. At that time, the Etruscan would use animal or even human teeth to make dentures for patients.

As humanity progressed our food supply changed. More sugar came into the diet, which often meant tooth decay. Therefore, many substitutions for missing teeth were developed over time.

Ivory was an early option, but they didn’t look very convincing and could decay easily. Porcelain was another option, but it cracked too easily at first. It took time and refinement for porcelain to offer a more appealing option. However, it is still a material that modern dentists will use today for tooth replacement.

The best material for tooth replacement is simply other human teeth. Obviously, however, this comes with some challenges. Early in the evolution of dentistry as a profession, human teeth might be stolen from graves just for a quick and easy option. However, this also meant they were mostly cosmetic and needed to be removed for eating. This practice of using human teeth went away over time, lasting until the mid-1800s.

After human teeth, people started trying to use vulcanite for false teeth. This was a significant development in the evolution of dentistry as a profession and medical practice. Vulcanite is a flexible type of rubber. That made it comfortable and affordable, which offered a lot more people access to dentures and this sort of dental care. It meant more middle-class people could get this kind of dental help, whereas previously this was a practice reserved for the wealthy.

Dentistry and Children

Children present their own problems when it comes to the evolution of dentistry as a profession, as any parent can surely attest to. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that there even were kids-only practices for dentistry. Even then, there weren’t formal standards for pediatric dentistry.

In the 1940s, kids finally got their own dentists. The recognition of the pediatric dentist as a separate type of dentist was a significant development in the evolution of dentistry as a profession. This quickly led to more young children visiting the dentist every year as a routine part of their general health and well-being.

A push came in the 60s to see more dentists trained in this particular specialty field. This marked a real shift in how people thought about dentistry and dentists. Having special dentists and special training that focused on children allowed them to get dental care early on in life. That meant better long-term outlooks for children in regard to their oral health.

Cosmetic Dentistry

Of course, not all dentistry is fixing a problem or treating a disease of some sort. There are plenty of reasons why people may want to get help from a dentist beyond just addressing an issue.

Cosmetic dentistry has been around for a very long time. As far back as the Etruscans in 700 B.C., people were hoping for help making their smiles more beautiful. Sometimes this meant replacing missing teeth. Sometimes it meant creating pastes that could remove stains. These practices are both extremely old.

The barbers mentioned above would also sometimes do some cosmetic dentistry in medieval times. Barbers could make teeth appear whiter, though they often did this by filing the teeth, which made them weaker over time.

The real leap for cosmetic dentistry in the evolution of dentistry as a profession hit in the 1700s. The development of better dentures, as described above, helped a lot, but dentists in this time also started to use molds that could allow them to fit new teeth better.

Of course, these days the evolution of dentistry as a profession has taken huge leaps forward, including for cosmetic dentistry. Everything from teeth whitening to fillings to dental implants has become easier and more accessible. Still, it’s important to remember where all of these procedures originated and that some of them are far older than you might have thought. It turns out we’ve all always thought about and cared about how beautiful our smiles are.

Dentistry and Sports

Sports and dentistry are fields that have often overlapped. Often, that is by necessity. In modern times, more than 3.5 million children under 14 get hurt playing sports or doing recreational activities every year. A lot of that is going to include damage to teeth or jaws.

Sports related dentistry is one of the more recent steps in the evolution of dentistry as a profession. Unfortunately, not much thought was put toward dental care for athletes until fairly recently.

It only exacerbates things when you consider that many athletes do not know or realize how a sports-related injury could actually impact their dental health as well. Much of this field is focused on prevention, with less thought given to other factors.

Despite this, dentists have become more and more important in informing athletes and coaches of how sports can impact oral health. This isn’t just a broken jaw or lost tooth. As dentistry has evolved, we’ve come to understand more about the tissue and structure of the mouth as a whole. An injury from sports could damage these less obvious areas as well as the teeth themselves and have long-term consequences in some cases.

One of the most important advances that’s come in this area has been shielding devices, things like mouth guards that can protect the mouth even during high contact sports. A mouth guard doesn’t just protect the teeth. It can also protect the lips, gums, and other structures within the mouth. They might sound something like braces, but braces have a very different form and history when it comes to the evolution of dentistry as a profession.

History of Braces

Braces, unlike mouth guards, are extremely old in the history of dentistry. There have been crude sorts of braces discovered on Egyptian mummies.

These metal braces were very different from the ones we have today, but they weren’t completely foreign. While they were made from cord that came from animal skin, they were actually attached in a way that is very similar to modern braces.

Despite these mummies, the Romans are credited with the first attempt in the evolution of dentistry as a profession to straighten teeth. Unfortunately, this was not done with braces but with brute force. Applying pressure was thought to gradually move the tooth into place.

Unfortunately, there was a gap in progress in the evolution of dentistry as a profession. Once again we need to look to the 1700s to see growth in the field of dentistry. Despite advances, however, there wasn’t anything in this time period we would call braces.

The 1900s is when the term “braces” really came into its own. This wasn’t metal braces as we might think of them, but more of a wire crib that aimed to improve jaw alignment. A tangential improvement was the invention of the dental dam, which protected the gums while dentists worked on teeth, including while they worked on installing braces.

The braces of the 20th century were an improvement, but not an entirely pleasant one. Wrapping wire around each tooth would fix the teeth over time, but it was far from a fun process for patients. Metal braces like these improved over the course of the 20th century, but a major leap in braces technology and the evolution of dentistry as a profession came a little later.

At the very end of the 20th century, in 1997 Invisalign was finally invented, offering an alternative to traditional braces. Now, there are many options when it comes to clear braces. These braces were cheaper, quicker, and easier than traditional braces, making them the standard for braces over time.

A Long History

The evolution of dentistry as a profession has taken maybe strange twists and turns. From wires found on mummies to barber-surgeons to invisible braces that revolutionized teeth straightening, dentistry has changed a lot since it began.

At the same time, dentistry is extremely old. Humans have almost always been concerned about their teeth, both for cosmetic and medical reasons. A healthy and bright smile has always been a priority among civilizations around the world.

When it comes to the evolution of dentistry as a profession, there are still challenges in access and comfort, as well as general information. Many people, especially children, still find the thought of visiting the dentist pretty unpleasant and will avoid it at all costs. Even this is changing with time, however, as people understand how critical dentistry is to overall health.

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