Wednesday, December 23, 2015

A Trip to the Dentist Through the Ages

Imagine yourself in the stone age, living along a river in the Neanderthal Valley in what is now Germany. In agonizing pain because of a toothache, you are unable to eat, and growing weak as a result. Winter is coming. Perhaps your friends have tried to pry the tooth from your mouth with a stick, but it has become infected, and the pain is unbearable. If your tooth isn't taken out soon, you won't last until spring. You need a dentist.

There is a man who lives apart from your tribe, in a small cave far up a narrow valley. Gathering your finest bearskin as a gift, you set out with a friend on the hike to his cave, hoping that he can help you. He takes a look at your mouth, and you are led to a low table, where you lie down. Your hands are bound, and your friend holds you down as the man carefully takes aim at the tooth with a slender, sharpened antler, ready to hit it with a stone ax. When the blow comes, you pass out from the pain.

While this type of simple scenario is easy to imagine, evidence has been found at the Mehrgarh archeological site in Pakistan that 7500-9000 years ago, Neolithic peoples were drilling holes in teeth, perhaps using flint-tipped, bow-powered drills. Where tooth pain is concerned, necessity is indeed the mother of invention.

The earliest known dentist, indeed the first doctor of any sort recorded in history, was the Egyptian dentist Hesy-Ra, described in his epitaph as "the greatest of those who deal with teeth." Hesy-Ra died in approximately 2600 B.C.E., perhaps 15,000 years after the imagined visit to the Neanderthal Valley Shaman. Dental care of the Egyptian Third Dynasty has been described in several papyrus scrolls that have survived, and mostly seems to have consisted of various poultices used to relieve pain. Evidence of holes drilled in teeth has been found, and although several dental prostheses (i.e. sets of false teeth, or dentures) survive from the period, there is significant debate as to whether they were used during the lifetime of the patient or were installed later by the embalmer. What is undoubted is that Hesy-Ra was a man of high station, and his position as physician to the Royal Court is well documented.

It wasn't until about 600 B.C.E. that the Etruscan culture of what is now Italy developed what are undeniably functioning dentures. Several sets have been found, showing signs of wear from use. They were made of teeth from animals or other people, and held together with gold bands that were fitted around the patient's remaining teeth. With few modifications, dentures remained essentially unchanged until the modern era.

Indeed, the first President of the United States, George Washington, had several similar sets of dentures made. Contrary to popular legend, they were made of human teeth, animal teeth, lead, and ivory, not wood. Necessitated by the fact that Washington only had one tooth remaining by the time of his inauguration, they can be seen on display at his home in Mount Vernon, Virginia.

Pierre Fauchard is generally regarded as the father of modern dentistry. Born in 1678 in northwest France, he joined the Navy at 15 and soon began his life's work. He was the first to attribute cavities to the over-consumption of sugar, the first to develop fillings and braces, and helped further refine dentures.

With the invention of procaine by Alfred Einhorn in 1905, today a visit to the dentist includes anesthesia, air-powered precision drills, and modern dentures made of acrylics.

When looking for a professional dentist, Independence, MO residents visit Hanson Dentistry. Learn more about our services at
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