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Kristin Hohman serves as Associate Editor for DPR.
While dentistry as a separate profession is relatively new, humans have been trying to care for their teeth for thousands of years. Of course, what that care looked like has changed dramatically since ancient Egyptians used branches to clean between their teeth. Oral healthcare history has seen it all—including milestones for women and people of color, many scientific and medical advancements, and better patient care. But dentistry's past also includes some uncomfortable and downright painful truths. Here we take a quick look at 5 random historical facts about dentistry.
While dentistry as a separate profession is relatively new, humans have been trying to care for their teeth for thousands of years. Of course, what that care looked like has changed dramatically since ancient Egyptians used branches to clean between their teeth.
Oral healthcare history has seen it all—including milestones for women and people of color, many scientific and medical advancements, and better patient care. But dentistry's past also includes some uncomfortable and downright painful truths.
Here we take a quick look at 5 random historical facts about dentistry.
With the introduction of sugar into the diet of wealthy Europeans, tooth decay quickly became prevalent among this section of society, and false teeth became a booming industry. While there were several popular materials for false teeth in the early 19th century—including ivory from hippos, walruses, or elephants—nothing was quite as long-lasting or natural-looking than real teeth. Scavenging for human teeth from the dead and recently buried became a lucrative business.
The Battle of Waterloo in June 1815 left thousands of dead soldiers strewn across the battlefield, perfect for scavengers looking for a quick penny. These teeth would later be referred to as Waterloo Teeth and were attached to ivory baseplates and shaped to create an antiquated denture. While the practice was more common in the early part of the 19th century, Waterloo Teeth were still appearing in supply catalogs in the 1860s, having been shipping over in barrels from the American Civil War.
Dr Lucy Hobbs [married name Taylor] was the first American woman to earn a degree in dentistry. Dr Hobbs was a schoolteacher in Michigan when she began studying medicine. She moved to Cincinnati, Ohio in 1859, where she was refused admission to the Eclectic College of Medicine due to her gender, and instead studied privately under one of the school’s professors. At his suggestion, she turned her focus to dentistry and began privately studying under the dean of the Ohio College of Dental Surgery.
Despite setbacks because of her sex, Dr Hobbs graduated with her dental degree in 1866, 54 years before women earned the right to vote under the 19th Amendment. Dr Hobbs married James M. Taylor, and under her tutelage, he too became a dentist. They later moved to Lawrence, Kansas, where they set up a large practice and Dr Hobbs went on to become an avid supporter of women’s suffrage.
American dentist Dr. Levi Spear Parmly is credited with creating the first iteration of dental floss in 1819, making floss 201 years old. He used waxen silk thread "through the interstices of the teeth, between their necks and the arches of the gum, to dislodge that irritating matter which no brush can remove and which is the real source of disease.”
Despite Dr. Parmly’s belief that foreign material on the teeth was the root cause of caries, dental floss was not commercially available until 1882, when the Codman & Shurtleff Company began producing unwaxed silk floss. In 1898, Johnson & Johnson received the first patent for dental floss that was made from the same material medical doctors used for sutures.
Hesy-Ra (Re), an ancient Egyptian high official under the Third Dynasty of Egypt, is thought to be one of the earliest dental practitioners in recorded history. It’s thought that he was given one of his more well-known titles—Wer-ibeḥsenjw, meaning ‘Great one of the ivory cutters’ or ‘Great one of the dentists’—around 2600 BC.
Hesy-Ra’s tomb is remarkable for its colorful paintings, which excavators found in such good condition, they decided to preserve it for its unique colors.
Dentistry is considered a late arrival as a medical occupation. The term ‘dentist’ wasn’t even used before the late 18th century. So, who provided dental care? Until the mid-eighteenth century, the responsibility of dental care fell mostly on barber-surgeons, a combination of general practitioners and traditional barbers. This profession had a wide range of responsibilities, including stitching wounds, letting blood, mending broken limbs, and—you guessed it—pulling teeth.
The reason for this wasn’t that barber-surgeons were medical professionals with an in-depth knowledge of medical procedures. No, it was simply because barbers possessed the sharp tools to extract teeth. In the 1800s, the professions began to split apart as science advanced and medical procedures became more exact.