History of Dentistry

Dentistry has been known to mankind ever since the advent of civilization. Ever since the very early settlements, medicine has always been practiced. While it is true that early forms of medicine were ridden with shamanism and superstition, it still was effective to some extent in preventing diseases and curing them. However, it took many centuries for it to be become refined and become an exact science. Since the very beginning, dentistry was an innate part of medicine. Similar to all other disciplines, dentistry became an exact science only in the Age of Enlightenment. Now dentistry is a vast field that has benefited from modern developments. It occupies an important role in the modern healthcare system.

The earliest attestation of dentistry comes from the Indus Valley Civilization. Archaeological finds from the various sites of the Indus Valley civilization indicate that bow drills were probably used in the treatment of dental disorders. Over the centuries, dentistry spread to other nearby civilizations via trade. In ancient Sumer, dentistry became widely practiced by 5000 BC. A manuscript from that era mentions that dental diseases are caused by “tooth worms”. Similar beliefs continue to be held in other civilizations as well. In Europe, even until the 13th century, similar beliefs continue to exist.

The subsequent centuries saw several new developments in the field of dentistry. New procedures and techniques were developed and refined even further. By the 17th century B.C., several new procedures were discovered to treat the various dental conditions. A manuscript from that period, known as the “Edwin Smith Papyrus” mentions many treatment instructions for dental diseases. Findings from that period also indicate that crude attempts were being made to implant prosthetics.

In the early centuries of the Christian era, dentistry saw many more advances. However, by the Middle Ages dentistry underwent a setback. Even until the 17th century, dentistry was not considered a reputable profession. Dental procedures are mostly performed by barbers. It never enjoyed the same status as medicine.

During the 1700s, as people migrated to the American colonies, so did dental practitioners. Once there, many devoted themselves to tooth extraction and replacement with artificial dentures. Most early dentures were made of ivory and usually a precious metal, either silver or gold (interestingly enough, Paul Revere himself was a metalworker, and made dentures from ivory and gold). Because of the materials typically used, dentures tended to be very expensive. On a side note, George Washington did not have wooden teeth, but rather dentures made from metal and either ivory or carved cow teeth.

In 1844, Dr. Horace Wells of Connecticut observed an exhibition of people inhaling nitrous oxide, and from that, he got the idea of using it for anesthetic purposes. Soon after, Greene Vardiman Black invented a foot engine for dental drills, allowing the dentist to power the drill while keeping his hands available for the procedure. Black also observed large amounts of bacteria on the teeth, and proposed that such bacteria are the cause of periodontal disease and dental caries. However, this theory was never proven until the 1960s, when scientific evidence was found to support it.

After the advent of the age of Enlightenment, dentistry along with all other disciplines underwent rapid developments. It became much more scientific and also became an exact science. Developments in other fields such as medicine and sciences had a huge impact on dentistry. Today, dentistry is one of the most lucrative professions. It also forms an integral part of modern healthcare system. In other words, its role is truly indispensable.




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