The History of Dental Advances
Many of the most common dental tools were used as early as the Stone Age. Thankfully, technology and continuing education have made going to the dentist a much more pleasant – and painless – experience. Here is a look at the history of dentistry's most common tools, and how they came to be vital components of our oral health care needs.
Where did toothbrushes and toothpaste come from?
The first toothbrushes were small sticks or twigs mashed at one end to create a broader cleaning surface. The Chinese lay claim to the first bristle toothbrush. Europe adopted the bristle brush in the 17th century, and many dentists practicing in colonial America advised their patients to use the brush. The first electric toothbrush was marketed in 1880, though the Swiss developed the first effective electric toothbrush just after World War II. It was introduced in the United States around 1960. A year later, the first cordless model was developed and proved to be popular with both consumers and dentists.
Toothpaste also saw its earliest form in ancient civilizations. Early toothpaste ingredients included powdered fruit, burnt or ground shells, talc, honey and dried flowers. Less agreeable ingredients included mice, rabbit heads, lizard livers and urine. Despite the decidedly non-minty flavor of early toothpaste, various recipes continued to appear throughout ancient history and well into the Middle Ages. Unfortunately, many of these toothpastes contained corrosive elements that dissolved tooth enamel.
Toothpaste as we know it emerged in the 1800s, with ingredients that included soap and chalk. In 1892, the first collapsible tube was marketed and reigned supreme until 1984, when the pump dispenser was introduced. In 1956, Proctor & Gamble introduced Crest brand toothpaste with fluoride.
When was drinking water fluoridated?
In 1945, Grand Rapids, Michigan introduced fluoride into their public water systems to help fight tooth decay among residents. At the same time, a group of Wisconsin-based dentists succeeded in getting the state's water system fluoridated. After substantial testing showed that fluoride reduced the incidence of cavities by as much as two-thirds, in 1951 the U.S. Public Health Service urged the entire country to fluoridate public drinking water.
The idea for water fluoridation resulted from an observation made by a dentist from Colorado Springs, Colorado, in the early 1900s. Frederick McKay noticed that locals had brown stains on their teeth. He called the staining "enamel mottling" and attributed it to drinking water with high fluoride content. He reported that the locals had a reduced incidence of tooth decay. In 1940, another dentist revealed that one part fluoride per one million parts water was the ideal ratio for reducing decay while preventing staining. Soon after, fluoride gained acceptance, and today more than 60 percent of Americans have fluoridated water.
What's the history behind false teeth?
Thanks to modern technology, today's false teeth are largely indistinguishable from real teeth. This wasn't always the case. Perhaps the most famous false-toothed American was the first president, George Washington. Popular history gave Washington wooden teeth, though this was not the case. In fact, wooden teeth are impossible; the corrosive effects of saliva would have turned them into mushy pulp before long. As a matter of fact, the first president's false teeth came from a variety of sources, including teeth extracted from human and animal corpses.
Despite this seemingly gruesome practice, dental practitioners preceding Washington's time attempted aesthetic restorations. Ancient civilizations used ivory and bone to create new teeth. Unfortunately, this craft was lost until the mid-1800s. Rotten or damaged teeth were simply extracted, and gaps became a way of life. When false teeth were warranted, threads of silk or tightly coiled springs were used to hold the new teeth in place; it wasn't much of an anchor, and teeth had to be removed before eating, lest they literally spring from the wearer's mouth. Additionally, genuine teeth extracted from the living and the dead and set in another's mouth soon rotted. Those who could afford it opted to have new teeth fashioned from ivory, gold or silver.
It wasn't until 1774 that two Frenchmen, a pharmacist and a dentist, designed a set of porcelain teeth. Steady improvements were made on the teeth, most notably in 1808 when an Italian dentist invented a single porcelain tooth imbedded with a platinum pin. These teeth came to America in 1822, and for the rest of the century dentists and technicians tinkered with the design, fit and feel of the teeth. A breakthrough occurred in 1839 with the discovery of vulcanized rubber, which was used to hold false teeth. Today's dentures are made of either plastic or ceramic.
How long have we had anesthesia?
Though dentistry has been around in one form or another since the days of primitive humans, painless extraction wasn't available until the 1830s. In the beginning, teeth were removed with a well-placed chisel and a hard swing of a mallet. Thousands of years later, during peaks of the great Greek and Roman civilizations, the chisel-and-mallet method was abandoned in favor of forceps.
In the 1790s, a British chemist began to experiment with the use of nitrous oxide as a pain-inhibitor and noted its most famous side effect, laughing. He coined the anesthetic's popular nickname, "laughing gas." During the next 50 years, the gas became very popular. In 1863 the gas was combined with oxygen, becoming a staple of surgical procedures.
Soon after the adoption of nitrous oxide, local anesthetics were developed. Just prior to the 1900s, cocaine was used, but once its addictive qualities were identified, the search began for a suitable alternative. Many of the alternatives were forms of synthetic cocaine, but none were successful until 1905 when a German chemist discovered procaine, which he named Novocain. The anesthetic proved extremely popular with dental professionals, as well as a public relieved at the sound of "painless dentistry."
Updated: February 2007