Going to the dentist is an experience that few people enjoy, although modern practice has resulted in largely painless treatments.
But winding back the clock to much older times, dental work, in particular the removal of an aching tooth, was a much dreaded procedure usually resulting in great pain and often septicaemia because of poor hygiene procedures.
During mediaeval times in Europe dental extractions were often done by barbers, without anaesthetic, using primitive instruments and brute force to do the work. Wine or whisky could be used to reduce the pain, but all in all dental procedures of the time were diabolically bad.
It was in the 18th century that real progress was made when the French surgeon Pierre Fauchard published a landmark work called “The Surgeon Dentist, A Treatise on Teeth” in 1723. This work was the beginning of the modern era of dentistry and contained information on filling cavities, implanting dental prostheses and the design and use of dental braces. He also showed how tooth decay was produced by sugar, rather than the old beliefs of tooth worms and evil spirits.
Fauchard’s work resulted in dentistry becoming a distinct profession, rather than just another branch of general medicine.
In 1766, John Baker, a dentist who was originally trained in England, immigrated to the United States, bringing elements of modern dentistry with him. These included the making of ivory dentures, a skill he used when he manufactured a set for the future President of the United States, George Washington.
A dentist who worked with Baker was Paul Revere, later famous for his heroic ride that alerted the colonial militia to the approach of British forces in 1775. Revere learned how to make dentures in a similar fashion to Baker, and also pioneered the use of dentistry in forensics, when he was able to identify a battlefield corpse from the surviving dental work.
Further progress was made in 1789 when another French dentist, Nicholas Dubois patented a technique for manufacturing artificial teeth made of porcelain. Two further key inventions took place the next year in 1790, when the pedal powered dental drill appeared, in parallel with a specialised dental chair, for the convenience of the dentist and comfort of the patient.
Image: In this painting a patient is seen falling to the floor after a “brute force” tooth extraction. A watercolour by British caricaturist James Gillray, c 1790, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.