Advances in modern dentistry have given us beautiful smiles and healthy mouths, but it’s the daily routine of brushing, flossing and caring for our pearly whites that makes the difference. In our busy lives, those chores may seem a nuisance but compared to what our ancestors went through, today’s painless dentistry is a marvel.
Although many of today’s most common dental tools were used as early as the Stone Age, advanced technology and continuing education have made going to the dentist a much more pleasant experience. Let’s take a look back at the origins of some of the vital components of our oral health care needs we now take for granted.
The basic toothbrush and toothpaste are a good place to start. Ages ago, the first toothbrushes were small sticks or twigs mashed at one end to create a broader cleaning surface. The Chinese made the first bristled toothbrush with bristles from pig necks and it was adopted by Europeans in the17th century. The new-fangled brushes came over on the Mayflower and many dentists practicing in colonial America advised their patients to use the brush. It wasn’t until 1800 that the first electric toothbrush was marketed but it was merely a brush with a magnet in the handle, deemed ‘electromagnetic.’ The first effective electric brush came from the Swiss just after WWII. It made its way to the United States in 1960 and a year later a cordless model became available, popular with both consumers and dentists.
History shows us that forms of toothpaste used in ancient civilizations were pretty varied, and sometimes bizarre. Early toothpaste ingredients included powdered fruit, burnt or ground shells, talc, honey and dried flowers. There is evidence that other questionable ingredients included mice, rabbit heads, lizard livers and urine. While the early preparations lacked today’s minty-fresh taste, recipes for toothpastes continued to be shared through the Middle Ages. Lacking modern knowledge, they were using ingredients that were mostly corrosive to the teeth and dissolved tooth enamel. In the 1800s, toothpaste emerged with ingredients like soap and chalk and was sold in jars. The first collapsible tube was unveiled in 1892 and was the standard for over a hundred years, with much improvement to the flavor. Proctor & Gamble introduced Crest brand toothpaste with fluoride in 1956.
The idea for water fluoridation resulted from an observation made by a dentist from Colorado in the early 1900s. Frederick McKay observed locals with brown stains on their teeth. He called the staining "enamel mottling,” attributing it to drinking water with high fluoride content, but he also noted that the locals had far less tooth decay than average. By 1940, another dentist revealed that one part fluoride per one million parts water was the right mix for reducing decay without staining. Recognizing that fluoride was critical in the prevention of cavities, Grand Rapids, Michigan introduced fluoride into their public water systems in 1945. A group of Wisconsin-based dentists got their state's water system fluoridated at the same time. Testing in these areas showed that fluoride reduced the incidence of cavities by as much as two-thirds, and in 1951 the U.S. Public Health Service urged the entire country to fluoridate public drinking water. Today more than 60% of Americans drink fluoridated public water, but bottled water has taken away some of that fluoride protection.
When all else has failed, and teeth need to be replaced, we have come a long way in history. George Washington might be the most famous false-toothed American. History and folk-lore tell us Washington had wooden teeth but that’s impossible. Wooden teeth would be turned into a mushy mess by the corrosive action of saliva so they would have been impractical. A closer look into history shows that the first president's false teeth came from several sources, including teeth extracted from human and animal corpses. Living donorsvoften sold their teeth. Who can forget the scene in Les Miserables’ where Fantine, desperate for money, has her perfectly white teeth pulled out with pliers?
While corpse teeth may sound gruesome, dental practitioners have long attempted aesthetic restorations. Ancient civilizations used ivory and bone to create new teeth but the ancient craft was lost until the 1800s. Rotten or damaged teeth were simply extracted, and gaps became a way of life. For those lucky enough to procure false teeth, threads of silk or tightly coiled springs were used to hold them in place. While it may have improved appearance, it didn’t anchor the teeth well and they had to be removed before eating, lest they literally spring from the wearer's mouth. Also, genuine teeth taken from their roots in the living and the dead soon rotted in another’s mouth. The wealthy had new teeth fashioned of ivory, gold or silver.
A French pharmacist and a dentist designed a set of porcelain teeth in 1774, making false teeth more palatable and attainable. Improvements continued until 1808 when an Italian dentist invented a single porcelain tooth imbedded with a platinum pin. Introduced in America to America in 1822, dentists and technicians spent the next century experimenting with the design, fit and feel of the teeth. Vulcanized rubber provided the next big breakthrough in 1939, when it was molded to hold the false teeth. Modern dentures are made of either plastic or ceramic and dentists continue looking for modern improvements like the recent dental implant procedures.
Being afraid of the dentist is no laughing matter, and many lack regular dental care because of the fear of pain. Looking back in history, teeth were removed without numbing and with a well-placed chisel and a hard mallet swing. Thousands of years later, Greek and Roman civilizations traded forceps for the chisel-and-mallet method but painless extraction was not available for centuries. In the 1790s, a British chemist experimented with the use of nitrous oxide as a pain-inhibitor and noted its most famous side effect, laughing and named it "laughing gas." It became very popular during the next five decades and in 1863 the gas was combined with oxygen, a staple for surgical procedures.
On the heels of nitrous oxide, local anesthetics were developed. Cocaine was used prior to the 1900s, but once its addictive qualities were known, the search was on for a replacement. They tried forms of synthetic cocaine, but none were successful until 1905 when a German chemist discovered procaine, which he named Novocain, and dental patients breathed a sigh of relief. Dental professionals and patients embraced the new era "painless dentistry."
We’ve come a long way in the history of dental care, and there is new technology every day, but nothing will replace the daily brushing and flossing and regular dental checkups to keep your smile healthy!