Dentistry is one of those things that can often make people uncomfortable, going as far to set their teeth on edge you might say. But as unpleasant an experience as it can be, modern dentistry is saintly compared to the history of the practise. Today, when you need help with your teeth, you know that a professional dentist with a high degree of training, expertise and experience is within reach. Of course, this has not always been the case, and even going back 50 – 100 years, the experience would be nigh unrecognisable.
Archeological evidence suggests that ancient civilisations were actually not as prone to tooth and gum problems as might be expected. This is mostly due to their diets containing no sugars and processed foods coupled with a considerably shorter average lifespan. However, the earliest evidence of a civilisation recognising tooth decay is from the Harappan people of the Indus Valley, in northeast India circa 7000 BCE. They did not know what was causing the problems, which resulted in their deciding that worms were to blame, but there is evidence to suggest that they recognised something was wrong.
The time of the Toothdrawers
There are records of tooth removal scattered throughout history, but from a modern context the most relevant ones begin in England with public ‘Toothdrawers’. Arguably as much performers as anything else, these individuals would travel from town to town and set themselves up in a marketplace, often dressed as jesters. They would then proceed to literally pull infected teeth from the townsfolk but whether or not they would charge for their services is contested. The earliest mention of a Toothdrawer is that of Peter of London in 1320, a good 80 years before King Henry IV would appoint Matthew Flint as his official Toothdrawer.
Foundation of Dentistry
Modern dentists can trace their craft back to a surprising source – barbers. Being the first recognised ‘professionals’ to practise dentistry, the Guild of Barbers, which itself was formed in 1210, was split into two categories at some point during the 1300’s. These groups represented the skill and experience levels of the practitioners, with the Guild Barbers being more experienced and allowed to carry out complex procedures and the Lay Barbers who were only permitted to perform hygienic tasks and simple procedures. True modern dentistry arguably originates with Pierre Fauchard, a French physician who published the first scientific text on dentistry in 1728, which set a new standard for the field.
Bare this long history in mind the next time you grow fearful of visiting the dentist. There is a lot of knowledge, experience and research behind the techniques and procedures we enjoy today. Whilst the experience may be uncomfortable, it might also help to remember that anesthetic was not invented until 1846, and Novocaine (the first and most popular local anesthetic for dental procedures which is the commercial name for Procaine ) was not used until 1905. Really we should count ourselves lucky for the times we live in as such advancements make even the most unpleasant procedures infinitely better that they would have been not so long ago.