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A Brief History of Dentistry

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Pliers were invented in the Bronze Age

Pliers were invented in the Bronze Age

History of Dentistry

Until the 18th century, dentists used primitive and largely ineffective methods to dull the pain of their procedures. Now, we have anesthesia, but most of us still dread a visit to the dentist. Imagine how our forebears must have felt.

Dental Background

You have to consider that there is a design flaw in teeth; the factory setting for dentition is in constant need of attention and repair. And, according to Dr. Emily Scott-Dearing, “. . . it wasn’t until the 20th century that regular teeth cleaning became the norm.”

Since recorded history began, there have been plenty of people willing (we don’t know how able) to take care of the inherent deficiencies of teeth. And it has been observed by others that the amount of remedial work required might be directly proportional to the scale of the renovations to a dentist’s kitchen.

Fortunately for members of the dental profession and their clients, someone in the Bronze Age (3300-1200 BCE) invented pliers.

Ancient Therapies

What went on before recorded history can only be guessed at, but it seems highly likely that dental treatment was very unpleasant.

Thousands of years ago, the Chinese wrapped small pieces of parchment around a bothersome bicuspid. Prayers for pain relief were written on the paper. It was probably as effective as a fortune cookie is today in predicting winning lottery numbers.

There’s a text from Sumer, about 7,000 years ago that deals with tooth worms. These little rascals were believed to burrow their way into teeth and reside within, causing pain.

The people offering treatments might use a hand-operated bow drill to get the “worm” out. The worm theory of dental decay was finally disproved in the 1700s.

The other alternatives were living with pain or extraction.

In the Middle Ages, there weren’t any dentists as such plying their trade; the work was a sideline for barbers and sometimes blacksmiths. Their practice was primitive; the barbers offered only one therapy- extraction.

Barbers handled other “medical” procedures, such as bloodletting. The legacy of that is seen today in barbers’ poles with the red signifying blood and white the bandages used to staunch the flow.

The Middle Ages were also a time when people boiled dogs’ teeth in wine to produce a mouth wash that was believed to stop decay.

Creating Smiles gives us this, “Some other common tooth remedies from ancient times include boiling earthworms in oil and to put the oil drops into the ears and to tighten loose teeth required tying a frog to your jaw.”

Dental Anesthesia

In ancient times, the ordeal of having a tooth removed was alleviated by a variety of remedies; none of them were very successful.

Babylonians used henbane, a member of the nightshade family. There’s a record from India of 3,000 years ago of wine being employed to produce unconsciousness.

Cannabis, opium, aconitum, mandrake, and compression of the carotid artery have all been pressed into service to relieve pain with varying degrees of success.

In 1540, the German physician Valerius Cordus developed a way of making what was poetically named “sweet oil of vitriol.” It’s better known to us as ether.

Dentistry wasn't always painless

Dentistry wasn't always painless

The Use of Nitrous Oxide

Let’s give three cheers, more if you like, to Sir Humphry Davy. In 1800, he published Researches, Chemical and Philosophical in which he detailed the anesthetic properties of nitrous oxide.

But, it was more than 40 years before dentists, now a recognized profession, knocked their patients senseless for procedures using the gas. And, we have Horace Wells to thank for that.

In 1844, Dr. Wells attended what was billed as “A Grand Exhibition of the Effects Produced by Inhaling Nitrous Oxide, Exhilarating, or Laughing Gas” in Hartford, Connecticut.

Gardner Quincy Colton was a former medical student turned showman who put on performances of the often humourous antics of people given nitrous oxide. At the Hartford event, a volunteer injured his legs while dancing around but felt no pain.

Horace Wells immediately saw the potential of using nitrous oxide on his patients.

Painless dentistry was born.

Ether is administered in 1846.

Ether is administered in 1846.

Early Dental Practices

In 1787, Thomas Rowlandson gave us a glimpse of the Georgian income gap. Wealthy people would pay those in poverty to sell their teeth. Rowlandson’s image (below) shows a tooth being pulled from a chimney sweep’s mouth while a fashionable lady sits beside him waiting for the molar to be implanted.

Transplant of a tooth

Transplant of a tooth

A tooth implant might last for a year or two. Sometimes, poor people would sell their live teeth for use in dentures, and corpses made donations for the same purpose. According to BBC History “After the battle of Waterloo, it’s said that within 24 hours thousands of dead soldiers were stripped of their teeth, to be set into dentures.”

Mayan Indians occupied much of Mexico and Central America from about 500 CE to 1000 CE. They had some fairly sophisticated dental techniques, including inlaying precious stones in teeth. This involved great precision in grinding a hole through the enamel and then setting a carefully cut stone into the cavity.

The writer Pliny the Elder in the first century CE tells us that in Ancient Rome amulets made out of moles’ feet were worn to guard against toothache. The belief in the magical power of the little critters’ feet clung on in England for hundreds of years.

Bonus Factoids

  • Complex composite odontoma is a rare disorder in which multiple teeth form in the mouth. This malady struck 17-year-old Ashik Gavai and, in 2014, he arrived at Mumbai’s JJ Hospital in India. In a seven-hour operation, Dr. Sunanda Dhiware led a team that removed 232 teeth from the young man’s right jaw.
  • The best oral hygiene is to brush your teeth two to three times a day for two to three minutes on each occasion.
  • In Victorian England, dentures were sometimes given as a wedding present because most people didn’t expect to have their original teeth very long.
  • The plaque between our teeth is home to an estimated 300 different species of bacteria.


  • “The History of Dentistry.” Shoshana Davis,, December 7, 2012.
  • “Why Are Barber Poles Red, White and Blue?” Heather Nix,, June 25, 2014.
  • “A Brief History of Dental Anesthesia.” Denise Prichard,, August 9, 2013.
  • “A Bite-Sized History of Dentistry.” Charlotte Hodgman, BBC History, June 2018.
  • “Fun Teeth Trivia and Interesting Dental Trivia and Facts… 110 and Counting!”, undated.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Rupert Taylor


fipe tuia on October 04, 2019:

I really want to know more about this. I am very curious of this as i was thinking of studying dentistry in the future. Dentistry has come along way .

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on July 05, 2019:

Brian. I can't answer your question with any authority as I'm not a dentist.

Athena Chan from Penang, Malaysia on July 05, 2019:

Interesting article. I was wondering. Is Carbohydrates, in general bad for teeth?

Lorna Lamon on July 04, 2019:

This is such an interesting article and thank goodness we don't have to suffer as much today when we visit the dentist. I had no idea that Barbers had so many sidelines in those days and the Barbers' pole represented bloodletting. Thank you for sharing.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on July 03, 2019:

I am thankful for the dentists of today as the past did not sound too pleasant. This was an interesting look of the past dental treatments.

Liz Westwood from UK on July 03, 2019:

There's nothing like visiting a museum with old dental equipment in it, to make us appreciate modern dental practices.