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What Do Hippopotamus Bone, Silver Coin Shavings, and Seashells Have in Common?

Oral health has been a topic of interest to humans since earliest times. Dentistry first appears in recorded text in 5000 BC, when the Sumerians thought that dental decay was due to tooth worms. The first dentist shows up in 2600 BC in an Egyptian tomb, which includes an inscription referring to Hesy-Re as the greatest physician in Egypt who dealt with teeth.


Two famed Greek physicians and philosophers, Aristotle and Hippocrates, wrote extensively about dentistry around 400 BC to 300 BC.  Among the oral health topics they focused on were treating gum disease and decayed teeth, the eruption pattern of teeth, how to extract teeth, and using wire to stabilize fractured jaws and loose teeth.


Celsus, a Roman who wrote extensively about medical topics around 100 BC, included a wealth of oral health content in his famed medical encyclopedia. He wrote about stabilizing loose teeth, treatments for toothache, pain from teething, and fractures of the jaw.


Fixed bridgework and gold crowns were noted for their use around 200 AD by the Etruscans. Dental implants first appear among the Mayans in 600 AD, when they used shells to replicate missing teeth. But it wasn’t until 1965 that a successful implant system that was scientifically documented was introduced.


There was very little in the way of dental advancements during the Dark Ages (500 AD to 1100 AD).


In 1728, Pierre Fauchard published a dental manuscript that was considered the first comprehensive scientific book on dentistry. Fauchard wrote about the use of carved ivory obturators with attached teeth for cleft palate, a description of tooth dysplasia, new prosthodontic devices for replacement of missing teeth, and innovation in the type and use of dental instruments.


Toothbrushes in various forms have been in use since ancient times, but the first mass-produced toothbrush was invented in 1770 by William Addis, an Englishman. He used swine bristles threaded through holes in a carved cattle bone for his initial toothbrush that he mass-produced.


Amalgam was first used for tooth restoration in the 1830s, when two Englishmen – the Crawcour brothers – introduced the filling material in the United States. They used shavings from silver coins, along with tin and mercury, to create a paste that they used as a tooth filling. Until recently, amalgam was the main material used for restoration. The introduction recently of fracture-resistant aesthetic bonding materials has reduced the usage of amalgam.


The use of anesthesia in dentistry first appears in the 1840s, when a Connecticut dentist – Dr. Horace Wells – used nitrous oxide on a patient to extract a tooth.


The 1850s were an important decade for changes in materials used to replace missing teeth. Until then, dentures were made from ivory, hippopotamus or human bone, or metal (lead and brass). A dentist used vulcanized rubber, which had been invented by Charles Goodyear, to create a new type of denture.


Although dental drills had been in use since 5000 BC, the first modern dental drill was invented in 1868 by Dr. George F. Green, an American dentist. This pneumatic drill was operated by a foot pedal. Dr. Green patented the electric dental drill in 1875.


Modern toothpaste in a tube made its first appearance in 1878, when Dr. Washington Wentworth Sheffield claimed a patent for a collapsible toothpaste tube.  Dr. Sheffield borrowed the idea from French painters, who he saw using collapsible tubes for their paints when he visited France.


The cause of tooth caries (cavities) was accurately described for the first time in 1890, when an American scientist, Dr. Willoughby D. Miller, wrote about his Acid Dissolution Theory. Before Dr. Miller’s theory, it was thought that cavities were caused by worms.


Fluoride’s critical role in the prevention of cavities has been called one of the 10 greatest public health advances of the 1900s. Research on fluoride began in 1901 when Frederick McKay, a new dentist, opened a practice in Colorado. When he arrived, McKay was astounded to find scores of residents with grotesque brown stains on their teeth and began research, in collaboration with renowned dental researcher Dr. G.V. Black, that led to recognition of fluoride’s preventive capabilities, and, 30 years later, to the knowledge that water-borne fluoride can prevent cavities.


Source: NYU College of Dentistry, American Dental Association

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