Hate going to the dentist? So did your ancestors.

Family History
9 October 2014

DentistNeolithic-era teeth found in modern-day Pakistan show evidence of having been drilled — with drills made of flint — and in a “remarkably effective” way, according to modern researchers who studied the 9,000-year-old teeth. Which goes to show that fear of going to the dentist probably predates written history.

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During the early Middle Ages in Europe, monks practiced dentistry, but in the 1100s, it was no longer allowed. That was when barbers — who had in their tool kits sharp knives and razors that were also useful for operations — began performing simple surgeries, cleaning and pulling teeth, and were first called “barber-surgeons.”

From ancient times, diverse cultures (some all the way into the 1900s) used to attribute toothaches to a “tooth worm” that gnawed at the tooth. The English thought it looked like a tiny eel, and in northern Germany it was thought to be a worm that was red, gray, and blue. Many cultures depicted it looking like a maggot.

So dental hygiene is nothing new, but it’s come a long way since the days of your great-grandparents and long-ago ancestors. Check out how some of them dealt with their dental issues:

Toothbrushes. We know from ancient excavations that the Egyptians and Babylonians brushed their teeth with toothbrushes of a sort, or more accurately “chewing sticks.” As far back as 3500 B.C., they chewed down one end of a twig so it had loose fibers and then brushed those against their teeth to clean them. They were similar to the herbal chewing sticks, or miswak toothbrushes, still used in India, Pakistan, and some Arab and African countries and which the World Health Organization recommends for oral hygiene.

In China, people made bristle brushes by attaching hog bristles to bamboo sticks or animal bones and used those as early toothbrushes.

Early Europeans cleaned their teeth with a cloth dipped in oils and salt.

But then in 1780 came a turning point: Englishman William Addis, who was in jail for having caused a riot, used his time productively to create a toothbrush more like one we would recognize today. Eventually, it was mass-produced, and the family toothbrush business he started operated until 1996.

Another huge turning point in dental care coincided with, surprisingly, World War II. Before the 1940s, it was not part of the American daily routine to brush one’s teeth. Soldiers at war were required to brush their teeth daily. When they returned home, they took their new dental care habit with them, which is when regular brushing became the norm in the United States.

Toothpastes have their own story. Some ancient people created primitive toothpastes that often included ingredients we would not expect to find in our minty squeeze tubes today. According to the Academy of General Dentistry, they sometimes included rabbit heads, mice, lizard livers, and even urine. Some of these early toothpastes included powdered fruit and honey, and you may have also found burnt or ground shell, dried flowers, and talc. No surprise, some of these were hard on tooth enamel.

Toothpaste more along the lines of what we might recognize came about in the 1800s, though some common ingredients included soap and chalk.

And then there were early dental prostheses. Most of us know Paul Revere as a Revolutionary War patriot, but he was also a silversmith and amateur dentist who made dentures of walrus ivory or animal teeth and fastened them into a patient’s mouth with gold wire. (He made some of George Washington’s dentures.)

Revere made an ivory and gold-wire dental prosthetic for General Joseph Warren, the man who sent Revere on his famous “midnight ride.” Years later, Revere became the first forensic dentist when he identified Warren, killed in battle at Bunker Hill, by the prosthetic he’d created for him. It was the first time dental remains had been used to identify a military service member in this country.

Pain control during dental surgery is nothing new, either. There is evidence that the Chinese used acupuncture to treat the pain of tooth decay as early as 2700 B.C. More recently, a Viennese ophthalmologist named Carl Koller was the first to experiment with cocaine as anesthesia for eye surgery. That was in 1884; soon after it was used as a local anesthetic in dental surgery. Later, as addictive nature of cocaine became clear, Novocaine was substituted.

— Leslie Lang

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