A Brief History of Dentistry

By | September 25, 2011

People have been trying to protect their teeth and improve their smiles for almost as long as there have been people. As many as 2500 years ago we find people with cosmetic dental work, embedded gems and teeth sharpening.

How far back does cosmetic dentistry go?

Some of the earliest cosmetic dentistry can be traced back centuries. From tooth sharpening on continents like Africa, to ivory and bone dentures created as far back as 700 B.C. by the Etruscans, to gemstones inlaid directly in to teeth in ancient Latin America, people have been modifying their teeth for reasons from spiritual enlightenment to vanity. Ancient dentures were made from anything resembling teeth, ivory, animal bone, human teeth taken from dead people and even live teeth taken or sold by people who where still using them but would rather have the money. This practice remained for nearly 2500 years even though the new teeth would rot quickly and smell rotten most of the time.

Tooth replacement also became a form of cosmetic dentistry as the techniques and technologies of dental work evolved. As early as 200 A.D. bridges and crowns made of gold were being used to improve the appearance of people who had lost teeth. Over in Egypt there is record of people actually having sea shells hammered in to their gums to replace missing teeth.

Major dental work wasn’t all that was going on in the early days of cosmetic dentistry. Early Egyptians created toothpaste from vinegar and crushed pumice stone while ancient Romans actually had toothpaste containing a natural source of ammonia, urine, as a teeth whitening solution. A far cry from the chemicals we use today.

Ye Olde World Dentistry

In the 1400s Europeans began carving dentures from bone and ivory much like the ancient Etruscans did. With much the same results, a rotting smell and quickly decaying dentures. Then there is the issue of how uncomfortable to wear these dentures were. At the time there was no way to size them for each person so a fit of good enough was the standard and many denture wearers wore their teeth simply for vanity and fashion because the pain involved in wearing them could be horrible.

In the late 1700s the first dentures made of porcelain were created by Alexis Duchteau. These new dentures did not rot like natural materials did, and with continued improvement in technique they became more comfortable to wear. By the 1800s porcelain teeth were incredibly popular and the field of cosmetic dentistry saw a resurgence in the practice. Around this time porcelain dentures began finding their way to the new world.

At this time replacement teeth were rarely made to fit. They were mass produced by a specialist such as Claudius Ash and then the closest fitting tooth was selected for the patient. This mass production was so lucrative that Ash even built his own ship to transport 10,000 dentures aboard and sell to the America’s. Unfortunately for Ash the ship was struck by lightning and sank just off the coast of Florida spilling his entire cargo in the process. To this day people are still finding his teeth washing up on shore after storms.

In 1840 a new rubber material called Vulcanite became available and began to be used as a base for dentures making false teeth even easier to wear. When combined with the recent use of a type of plaster to create molds of the mouth, we begin to see the creation of what we would consider modern dentures.

Over the ages there have been technical improvements over past techniques. But it’s astonishing to see that 2500 years ago people were concerned about the same vanity issues such as teeth whitening.