A Brief History of Dentistry

Can you imagine getting a cavity in the middle ages?  Electricity wasn’t harnessed and regulated until the late 1800s. There were no electric tools available to rid your teeth of cavities while allowing you to keep them in your mouth. You would simply wait until the tooth became too painful to tolerate and at that point you would seek out a person who had a tool to yank the tooth out.

Oddly, some of the first dentists were barbers. The barber pole outside the shop let the patient know that  they could  not only have their hair cut and beard shaved, but the barber could also act as a surgeon to extract teeth, lance abscesses, and do bloodletting when needed (ADA.org, 2014). Many people died from oral infections since it’s very difficult to pull an adult tooth and parts of the roots often remained after the tooth was extracted. Barbers had the special pliers needed to get the job done, but it was incredibly painful. Herbs that we now call the “toothache plant” were used in many cultures to help numb the mouth, but there was no real form of anesthetic to help you through the experience.  

The first toothbrushes date back to 3000 BCE, which were actually thin twigs with a frayed end that people rubbed against their teeth in an effort to rid their teeth of what we know today to be plaque (Science Reference Services, 2010).  Plants and bark were also used to clean teeth prior to the invention of the toothbrush. Bristle toothbrushes weren’t invented until 1498 in China. They were made out of the coarse hair from a hog’s neck attached to handles made of bamboo or bone (Science Reference Services, 2010).

Finally in 1938, the nylon bristled toothbrush that we still use today was invented and made popular in the U.S. by World War II soldiers who learned good dental hygiene while serving in Europe (Science Reference Services, 2010). Since then, the dental profession has made great strides studying and improving methods for good dental hygiene and preventive dentistry.

The best defense we have against cavities, gum disease, and plaque build-up is preventive dentistry — practicing good oral hygiene to keep your teeth and gums healthy. Brushing your teeth twice daily for two minutes is likely the most important practice we can adopt to engage in preventive oral maintenance. Most of us brush twice daily, but don’t take the time to brush long enough, leaving plaque and sometimes even food behind. Power toothbrushes with timers help patients brush for the appropriate length of time. Flossing is essential to removing plaque and food that can be left in tight spaces between your teeth and below the gum-line where your toothbrush can’t reach. Aside from brushing and flossing, most dental plans include two cleanings per year. Scheduling and attending cleanings allows you to work with your dental provider to identify possible issues before they become problematic, expensive, and painful.

Preventive dentistry is the only way to keep your gums healthy, your smile bright, your breath bearable, and your teeth in your mouth — where they belong! Go check your tooth brush; it may be time for a new one. Toothbrushes should be changed every three to four months. And don’t forget to floss! Your mouth will thank you (and so will your friends).

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ADA. "History of Dentistry Timeline" ADA.org. American Dental Association, 20 Oct. 2014. Web. 10 Nov. 2016.

Science Reference Services. "Who Invented the Toothbrush and When Was It Invented?" Who Invented the Toothbrush and When Was It? (Everyday Mysteries: Fun Science Facts from the Library of Congress). Library of Congress, 23 Aug. 2010. Web. 14 Nov. 2016.