A History of Dentistry

By Tim Lambert

Early Dentistry

In Sumer (now Iraq) in 2000 BC people believed that tooth decay was caused by worms. This strange belief carried on in the West until Tudor Times. The Etruscans an ancient civilization that existed in Italy after 800 BC were excellent dentists. They made false teeth from human or animal teeth held together with gold bands. They also used gold appliances to hold loose teeth in place (e.g. if the bone around the teeth was wasting away).

The Romans used similar dental methods. Meanwhile about 400 BC the Greek doctor Hippocrates described diseases of the mouth.

In the Early Middle Ages, monks acted as doctors, surgeons, and dentists. However, in the early 12th century the Church forbade the clergy to do operations of any kind. In their place, a new type of craftsman called a barber-surgeon emerged. As well as cutting hair and doing surgery he pulled teeth!

In Tudor Times dentistry changed little and a visit to a Tudor dentist would be painful! In Europe, the first textbook on dentistry was published in Germany in 1530. Furthermore, during the 17th century, some barber-surgeons began to specialize in dentistry. Gradually dentistry became separated from surgery. The first English textbook on dentistry was published in 1685. It was called The Operator for the Teeth.

In the Middle Ages, some people cleaned their teeth by chewing twigs. Others made toothpaste from things like crushed eggshells. However, there were no toothbrushes. The Chinese invented the toothbrush in 1498 but they took a long time to reach Europe. Toothbrushes were introduced into England in the mid-17th century.

In the 18th century, dentistry became more scientific. In 1728 a French dentist called Pierre Fauchard published a book called The Surgeon Dentist. In 1771 an Englishman called John Hunter published a book called The Natural History of the Human Teeth.

Modern Dentistry

Dentistry took huge leaps in the late 18th century and the 19th century. Porcelain false teeth were invented in 1770. In 1790 Josiah Flagg invented the dentist’s chair. In 1832 James Snell invented a reclining chair. In 1877 Basil Manly Wilkerson invented a hydraulic chair. Furthermore, for centuries, rich patients had gold fillings but amalgam was first used in Europe around 1820.

Then in 1846, Henry Morton demonstrated the use of ether as an anesthetic in dentistry. In 1864 George Fellows invented a clockwork dental drill. In 1875 George Green invented an electric dental drill. The air turbine dental drill (using compressed air) was introduced in 1957. Until the late 19th century dentists usually learned their trade by an apprenticeship.

However, in 1860 in Britain, The Royal College of Surgeons introduced the Surgeons Licence in Dental Surgery. In 1879 a register of dentists was set up. To be included in the register you had to be qualified or you had to show you had practiced dentistry before 1879. In Britain, only people on the register were allowed to use the words ‘dentist’ or ‘dental surgeon’ However you did not have to be on the register to practice surgery. You just couldn’t use the words dentist or a dental surgeon and of course, there were ways around that!

The British Medical Association was formed in 1880 and 1895 Lilian Lindsey became the first female dentist in Britain. The first dental degree was awarded by Birmingham University in 1901. Then in 1921 the law was changed so only registered dentists could practice dentistry.

Meanwhile, toothpaste was first sold in tubes in 1892 and the first nylon toothbrush was made in 1938. The first dental x-ray was made in 1896.

With the introduction of the National Health Service in 1948 dental care in Britain became much better. Fluoride toothpaste was first sold in Britain in 1958. The first cordless electric toothbrush went on sale in 1961. The dental scanner was introduced in 1987.

Last revised 2024