The History of Dentistry

While dentistry is considered one of the oldest professions in history and the earliest form of medicine to be practiced, it was the latest to be professionalized.



Dental care dates back to 7000 BC, and although under-appreciated; it has developed dramatically throughout the centuries.

The earliest evidence of dental practice 

Researchers found the earliest evidence of dentistry at the Mehgarh Neolithic site in Baluchistan, Pakistan. A group of researchers examined burials dated back to 7000 BC and found that holes were made in at least eleven molars. Although these drills did not contain any type of dental fillings, tooth wears on these holes were noted; thus it means people lived long after these holes were made.

VIDALE, M. & MACCHIARELLI, R. 2006. Early Neolithic tradition of dentistry. Nature, 440, 755-756.


Primitive tooth decay theory

In 5000 BC, the first-ever tooth decay explanation was given by the Sumerians. The theory was that human teeth can get infected by tooth worms. It is believed that tooth worms, will actually eat away tooth structure leaving a hole inside of the tooth. This idea was adapted and carried out throughout the centuries until it was deflated in the late 1300s by a French surgeon.



Dentistry in ancient Egypt

The ancient Egyptians were pioneers in dentistry; this shows how much they cared about their oral health. Dental procedures were heavily documented in writing in their ancient books. When Egyptian mummies were examined, early attempts at dental prostheses were observed. It is worth mentioning that the first ever referenced dental practitioner was an ancient Egyptian called Hesya-Re. This was regarded as a prestigious position, and he was titled the  “Great one of the dentists” by the pharaohs.  Hesya-Re used his knowledge to care for the pharaoh’s dental health as well as the common Egyptians at that time. His services were highly valued, and the pharaohs at that time, as a recognition, ordered his face to be carved.



Dental contribution by the Greeks

The Greeks had a tremendous contribution to ancient dentistry. For example, Hippocrates, who is remembered as the “Father of Medicine,” recommended that oral cavity problems should be fought with direct dental care; his treatments included tooth extraction and using wires to stabilize loose teeth. Second to Hippocrates was Diocles of Carystus, a Greek physician who was regarded as a pioneer in medicine; he emphasized the importance of dental hygiene and its effect on oral health. He recommended that teeth and gums should be rubbed often to keep them clean to prevent dental decay. Another Greek physician was Claudius, he came up with the suggestion that teeth were composed of bone and nerves.



Dentistry in the Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages up until the 15th century, the public regarded monks to be a trusted group to take on dental treatments. They carried out tooth extraction to relieve people from the pain associated with tooth decay. Years later, monks were banned by the church to carry out such treatments, and that is when barbers, due to their experience in dealing with blades and knives, took on this role and became the main providers of surgical procedures. They started extracting teeth using instruments quite like what we have today.



Oral practices in the Islamic Civilization

Looking at the era of the golden age of Islamic civilization, famous Arabic scientists like Al-Zahrawi (who is remembered as the greatest surgeon of the Middle Ages), discussed various dental treatments in his books of medicine. These included the management of dislocated jaws. He also came up with different designs of surgical tools that carried the same principle as the tools we use today in oral surgery.



Finally, some strange practices in ancient dentistry 

The ancient Egyptians strongly believed that using dead mice mixed with several other ingredients can cure toothaches. They would closely place a sliced dead mouse while still warm in the mouth to ease dental pain. 

Ancients Romans used human and animal urine as mouthwash. This was commonly practiced among people back then, to get their teeth cleaned and polished. Surprisingly, there is a logic behind this practice; the urine, with time, will dissolve into ammonia, which is highly alkaline, so it can act as a cleansing agent, and can easily degrade stains and plaque.  

In the Tudor period in England and Wales, sugar was so expensive that only the wealthy can afford it. They enjoyed it so much that they added it to almost everything they ate. It was not long until they started to suffer from decayed teeth. As a result, poor people started to darken their teeth to look like they have rotten teeth, in the hope to give off the appearance of the upper class.

Dr. Michael

Dr. Michael

MSc Implantology, Bonn University, Germany