A Comprehensive History of Dentistry and Dental Care

Doctor showing x-ray to patient
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By definition, dentistry is a branch of medicine that involves diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of any disease concern about teeth, oral cavity, and associated structures.

Who Invented the Toothbrush?

Natural bristle brushes were invented by the ancient Chinese who made toothbrushes with bristles from the necks of cold climate pigs.

French dentists were the first Europeans to promote the use of toothbrushes in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. William Addis of Clerkenwald, England, created the first mass-produced toothbrush. The first American to patent a toothbrush was H. N. Wadsworth and many American Companies began to mass-produce toothbrushes after 1885. The Pro-phy-lac-tic brush made by the Florence Manufacturing Company of Massachusetts is one example of an early American made toothbrush. The Florence Manufacturing Company was also the first to sell toothbrushes packaged in boxes. In 1938, DuPont manufactured the first nylon bristle toothbrushes.

It's hard to believe, but most Americans did not brush their teeth until Army soldiers brought their enforced habits of tooth brushing back home after World War II.

The first real electric toothbrush was produced in 1939 and developed in Switzerland. In 1960, Squibb marketed the first American electrical toothbrush in the United States called the Broxodent. General Electric introduced a rechargeable cordless toothbrush in 1961. Introduced in 1987, Interplak was the first rotary action electrical toothbrush for home use.

History of Toothpaste

Toothpaste was used as long ago as 500 BC in both China and India; however, modern toothpaste was developed in the 1800s. In 1824, a dentist named Peabody was the first person to add soap to toothpaste. John Harris first added chalk as an ingredient to toothpaste in the 1850s. In 1873, Colgate mass-produced the first toothpaste in a jar. In 1892, Dr. Washington Sheffield of Connecticut manufactured toothpaste into a collapsible tube. Sheffield's toothpaste was called Dr. Sheffield's Creme Dentifrice. In 1896, Colgate Dental Cream was packaged in collapsible tubes imitating Sheffield. Advancements in synthetic detergents made after WWII allowed for the replacement of the soap used in toothpaste with emulsifying agents such as Sodium Lauryl Sulphate and Sodium Ricinoleate. A few years later, Colgate started to add fluoride to toothpaste.

Dental Floss: An Ancient Invention

Dental floss is an ancient invention. Researchers have found dental floss and toothpick grooves in the teeth of prehistoric humans. Levi Spear Parmly (1790-1859), a New Orleans dentist is credited as being the inventor of modern dental floss (or maybe the term re-inventor would be more accurate). Parmly promoted teeth flossing with a piece of silk thread in 1815.

In 1882, the Codman and Shurtleft Company of Randolph, Massachusetts started to mass-produce unwaxed silk floss for commercial home use. The Johnson and Johnson Company of New Brunswick, New Jersey were the first to patent dental floss in 1898. Dr. Charles C. Bass developed nylon floss as a replacement for silk floss during WWII. Dr. Bass was also responsible for making teeth flossing an important part of dental hygiene. In 1872, Silas Noble and J. P. Cooley patented the first toothpick-manufacturing machine.

Dental Fillings and False Teeth

Cavities are holes in our teeth created by the wear, tear, and decay of tooth enamel. Dental cavities have been repaired or filled with a variety of materials including stone chips, turpentine resin, gum, and metals. Arculanus (Giovanni d' Arcoli) was the first person to recommend gold-leaf fillings in 1848.

False teeth date back as far as 700 BC. The Etruscans designed false teeth out of ivory and bone that were secured to the mouth by gold bridgework.

The Debate about Mercury

"French dentists were the first to mix mercury with various other metals and plug the mixture into cavities in teeth. The first mixtures, developed in the early 1800s, had relatively little mercury in them and had to be heated to get the metals to bind. In 1819, a man named Bell in England developed an amalgam mix with much more mercury in it that bound the metals at room temperature. Taveau in France developed a similar mixture in 1826."

In the Dentist's Chair

In 1848, Waldo Hanchett patented the dental chair. On January 26, 1875, George Green patented the first electric dental drill.

Novocain: There is historical evidence that the ancient Chinese used acupuncture around 2700 BC to treat the pain associated with tooth decay. The first local anesthetic used in dentistry was cocaine, introduced as an anesthetic by Carl Koller (1857-1944) in 1884. Researchers soon began working on a non-addictive substitute for Cocaine, and as a result of German chemist, Alfred Einkorn introduced Novocain in 1905. Alfred Einkorn was researching an easy-to-use and safe local anesthesia to use on soldiers during wartime. He refined the chemical procaine until it was more effective, and named the new product Novocain. Novocain never became popular for military use; however, it did become popular as an anesthetic among dentists. In 1846, Dr. William Morton, a Massachusetts dentist, was the first dentist to use anesthesia for tooth extraction.​

Orthodontics: Although teeth straightening and extraction to improve the alignment of remaining teeth has been practiced since early times, orthodontics as a science of its own did not really exist until the 1880s. The history of dental braces or the science of orthodontics is very complex. Many different inventors helped to create braces, as we know them today.

In 1728, Pierre Fauchard published a book called the "The Surgeon Dentist" with an entire chapter on ways to straighten teeth. In 1957, the French dentist Bourdet wrote a book called "The Dentist's Art". It also had a chapter on tooth alignment and using appliances in the mouth. These books were the first important references to the new dental science of orthodontics.

Historians claim that two different men deserve the title of being called "The Father of Orthodontics." One man was Norman W. Kingsley, a dentist, writer, artist, and sculptor, who wrote his "Treatise on Oral Deformities" in 1880. What Kingsley wrote influenced the new dental science greatly. The second man who deserves credit was a dentist named J. N. Farrar who wrote two volumes entitled "A Treatise on the Irregularities of the Teeth and Their Corrections". Farrar was very good at designing brace appliances, and he was the first to suggest the use of mild force at timed intervals to move teeth.

Edward H. Angle (1855-1930) devised the first simple classification system for malocclusions, which is still in use today. His classification system was a way for dentists to describe how crooked teeth are, what way teeth are pointing, and how teeth fit together. In 1901, Angle started the first school of orthodontics.

In 1864, Dr. S.C. Barnum of New York invented the rubber dam. Eugene Solomon Talbot's (1847-1924) was the first person to use X-rays for orthodontic diagnosis, and Calvin S. Case was the first person to use rubber elastics with braces.

Invisalign Braces: They were invented by Zia Chishti, are transparent, removable, and moldable braces. Instead of one pair of braces that are constantly adjusted, a series of braces are worn in succession each created by a computer. Unlike regular braces, Invisalign can be removed for teeth cleaning. Zia Chishti, along with his business partner Kelsey Wirth, founded Align Technology in 1997 to develop and manufacture the braces. Invisalign braces were first made available to the public in May of 2000.

The Future of Dentistry 

The Future of Dentistry report was developed by a large group of experts in the dental profession. The report is intended to be a practical guide for the profession's next generation.

In an ABC News interview, Dr. Timothy Rose discussed: replacements for dental drills in development at the present time that use a very accurate spray of silica "sand" to actually cut and prepare teeth for filling and stimulating the jaw's bone structure to spur new tooth growth.

Nanotechnology: The newest thing in the industry is nanotechnology. The speed at which advances are being made in science has catapulted nanotechnology from its theoretical foundations straight into the real world. Dentistry also is facing a major revolution in the wake of this technology having already been targeted with novel 'nano-materials.'

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Bellis, Mary. "A Comprehensive History of Dentistry and Dental Care." ThoughtCo, Sep. 9, 2021, thoughtco.com/history-of-dentistry-and-dental-care-1991569. Bellis, Mary. (2021, September 9). A Comprehensive History of Dentistry and Dental Care. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-dentistry-and-dental-care-1991569 Bellis, Mary. "A Comprehensive History of Dentistry and Dental Care." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-dentistry-and-dental-care-1991569 (accessed April 2, 2023).