The History of Dentistry
This year, CADS President Dr. Dale Gallagher has been writing a regular column on “Dentists in History,” highlighting some of our famous (sometimes infamous) colleagues of old. I am often asked questions in my practice about the history of our profession. This got me thinking about the actual History of Dentistry and the dental school class I most likely slept through on Friday afternoons.
It all began earlier than originally thought. Researchers from the University of Kansas published a study in 2017 documenting signs of “toothpick wear” on a set of Croatian Neanderthal teeth dating back 130,000 years. The toothpick wear pattern of the teeth suggests that the individual might have been trying to relieve discomfort in an area of an impacted third molar and ectopic premolar, or possibly to even remove the teeth. Another study published in 2015 used scanning electron microscopy to verify that a modern human tooth dating back 14,000 years had a carious lesion partially cleaned out using a sharpened flint tool. To date, this is the oldest known form of truly operative dentistry. With the invention of agriculture came a rise in tooth decay. The Indus Valley Civilization of ancient Pakistan, in 7000 BC, began using flint tools and bow drills routinely to remove decay. The earliest documented “filling” came from a Slovenian specimen, dating to around 4500 BC. In this case, a beeswax filling material was placed in a wear facet, presumably to reduce sensitivity in the exposed dentin.
So, the Neanderthals invented the elevator in 130,000 BC, the spoon excavator was developed in 12,000 BC, and the high speed handpiece was prototyped in 7000 BC. My we have come a long way, but we have been working on this for over 100,000 years, that we know of. Like with any form of technology the more we know the faster we improve, and most “modern” dental technologies are relatively new. I wonder what we’ll come up with in the next 100,000 years.
By Jonathon R. Kimes, DDS