A Profession That’s Long in the Tooth: A Short History of Dentistry

If you haven’t heard of this idiom before, it’s an interesting one that involves teeth, ripe old age, and standing out over time. “Long in the tooth” refers to how the teeth of animals, such as those of horses, become more visible when they age and when their gums recede—the older any one thing is, the more pronounced its presence.

This is also a saying that can apply to the old and illustrious profession of dentistry, which the American Dental Education Association posits to have begun as far back as 7000 B.C. Though many of us dread going to the dentist, we know how much the modern practice of dentistry aids in preserving our hygiene, preventing oral diseases like tooth decay and periodontal disease, and keeping us abreast of other health conditions linked to the state of our oral cavities (such as heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, and even cancer).

In a fitting tribute to the world’s dental practitioners, here’s a short history of dentistry—from the curious landmarks in the ancient profession, to the widespread usage of modern dental hand tools with micro motors—one that you can really sink your teeth into.

Patrons, Heroes, and Pioneers in the Field of Dentistry

The origins of dentistry are all at once ingenious, compelling, and more than a little macabre. Ancient texts from the Indus Valley, revealed to be from 5000 B.C., yielded the first descriptions about dentistry. An early theory posited by the Ancient Sumerians was that tooth decay was caused by tooth worms (a theory only proven false thousands of years later). It’s said that St. Apollonia, an Egyptian deaconess who is the Catholic Church’s Patron Saint of Dentistry, earned this title in 249 because part of her trials involved having each of her teeth pulled out or shattered one by one.

The first book devoted entirely to the practice of dentistry was the curiously titled Little Medicinal Book for All Kinds of Diseases and Infirmities of the Teeth (1530). This was supplemented by the release of The Surgeon Dentist, a Treatise on Teeth in 1723 by Pierre Fauchard, a French surgeon who is now acclaimed as the “Father of Modern Dentistry.” It was in the 1700s and 1800s that the field of dentistry blossomed in earnest, with the milestone Baltimore College of Dental Surgery opening in 1840; the first dental practice act being released by the state of Alabama in 1841; the establishment of the American Dental Association in 1859; Colgate’s release of the first toothpaste in 1873; and the first dental x-ray being used in 1896.

Tools, Methods, and Ongoing Transformations

The safe, hygienic, and efficient practice of dentistry that we know now still has its links in the past; for instance, one tool that has seen consistent use in dental treatments from 7000 B.C. to 2018 A.D. is the dental drill. The ancient prototype, a bow drill believed to be used for the making of beads and jewelry as well, later evolved into the clockwork dental drill invented by British dentist George Fellows Harrington in 1864, the pedal-powered burr drill by James B. Morrison in 1871, and finally the first electric dental drill in 1875 by George F. Green. In its present form, the modern-day dental drill can accommodate a speed of as much as 40,000 rpm, and benefit from motor solutions that minimize unpleasant noise and temperature of operation.

This is to say, in retrospect, that the ancient practice of dentistry is very much alive, and nowhere near the end of its possibilities in innovation. Some technologies that have emerged in the service of dentistry, and that we might see in use beyond 2018, are the use of 3D printing to craft dental surgical guides and stone models; and wider use of automated software that dwells on machine learning, particularly for integrated patient communication.

Thus, we celebrate dentistry—a profession that’s long in the tooth, and only bettering with age!