Dentistry. Historical perspective
A primitive form of dentistry dates back to the 7th millennium BC in ancient India, in the Indus Valley civilization. Apparently, the tools used were primitive drills to which hand-operated wooden stakes were attached.
The oldest beeswax lead was discovered in Slovenia, dating back 6500 years.
A Sumerian text from the 5th millennium BC records the belief that toothaches were caused by a “tooth worm” which burrowed small holes forming cavities. The legend of this worm is also found in the writings of Homer.
What the medicine men of the time actually saw were the nerves exposed by the destruction caused by decay. In the 14th century, the surgeon Guy de Chauliac was still promoting this idea, a belief that lasted until around 1700, when the true cause was discovered.
In ancient China, 5000 years ago, Emperor Huang Ti asked his physicians to intervene before the disease appeared.
As for oral hygiene, they used toothbrushes, dental powders and wooden and metal toothpicks (usually made of silver and worn around the neck by Chinese women, along with a Chinese object called a tongue cleaner).
Preventive methods have been listed since ancient times; the Hammurabi Codex listed the prices of preventive dental treatments (a primitive form of dentistry).
Ashurbanibal of Nineveh also had dentists in his retinue who removed food debris from between his teeth with bone toothpicks with carved handles. The Aztecs of the Americas used carved-handled bone toothpicks which they wore around their necks as a decorative pendant.
For oral cavity hygiene in New Guinea, they used wooden toothbrushes with brass wire, and some East African peoples used bitten and split sticks for this purpose. These ‘wooden brooms’, obtained by chewing, were used to clean the teeth every morning by the colored people of these lands, very proud of the contrast between the snow-white color of their teeth and the ebony color of their skin.
One of the earliest known “dentists” in history was the Egyptian Hesi-Re who lived in the 3rd millennium BC. He, together with the general physician Imhotep, prevented the onset of disease through purifying body baths or mouthwashes in religious rituals with the utterance of sacred words.
The inscription ‘the best of those who care for the teeth’ was found on the tomb of Hesi-Re. The Egyptians also used techniques to strengthen the teeth using gold wires.
The contribution of ancient Greece was mainly medical. The ancient Greek physician Aesculapius (1250 BC) gained great fame for his medical knowledge. In time he was deified, and his father was considered Apollo himself. Aesculapius first used bandages and purgatives. He advocated cleaning teeth and, if necessary, extracting teeth.
Hippocrates is believed to be a descendant of Aesculapius. He became famous for both his pioneering and medical writings. The Hippocratic Oath comes from him. He did not believe in magic.
He initiated medicine based on clinical observation and analytical reasoning of the symptoms of the sick. Health depends on the balance between diet and physical activity, and for prolonging life, man needs gymnastics, fresh air and fresh and balanced nutrition.
He devoted 32 pages to teething in one of his texts, called “Peri-Arthoron”. He appreciated the importance of teeth. For the prevention of tooth decay, he recommends fresh vegetables and fruits saying that every vegetable, every plant is a real medicine.
He was familiar with the instrument called “forceps” because the term is found in one of his writings. Aristotle (384 BC) who followed Hippocrates, accurately described the forceps for extraction.
Interestingly, in the Middle Ages, those who performed extractions were far from being qualified as doctors. They were often performed by monks, the most educated people of the early Middle Ages, and later by barbers or general practitioners. A series of papal edicts around 1130-1160 forbade monks from performing any kind of dental work, at which point barbers took over these duties.
They often assisted the monks, mainly because they came to the monasteries to tend the monks’ beards, but also because their tools included a number of sharp instruments useful for dental procedures. The barbers generally limited themselves to extracting teeth, but these caused pain and were often followed by serious infections.
The French surgeon Pierre Fauchard only became known as the “father of modern dentistry” at the end of the 17th century. It was he who shattered the myth of worms burrowing holes in teeth, explaining why sugar and fruit acids are the main culprits of tooth decay.
He was a highly skilled surgeon who made remarkable improvisations of dental instruments and is the one who introduced fillings as a form of treatment for cavities. Fauchard was the pioneer of dentures and he also introduced the dental appliance, although it was originally made of gold.
In 1873 the first toothpaste produced by Colgate appeared and was sold in jars. At the time, it represented a revolution in dentistry.
In 1885, the first toothbrush was also marketed in America, produced by H. N. Wadsworth. In 1939, the electric toothbrush was introduced, produced in Switzerland.
Daily tooth cleaning became a habit only after World War II, which means that human history has been marked by toothaches longer than we could have imagined.