How far back in history does a profession like that of the dentist have its roots? The development of dentistry in ancient times is closely linked to the birth and advancement of human medical science. Thanks to the historical documents that have survived to this day, we can trace the earliest dental procedures back to ancient times. For this reason, we will start by examining in depth the dawn of dental practice, giving an overview that reaches the eve of the modern age.
The presence of decay was documented in teeth from skulls dating from around 25,000 years ago, while the first written sources that refer to “decay” can be found in a Sumerian paper from 5,000 BC that speaks of “dental worms”.
The existence of small animals capable of digging cavities in the teeth and, therefore, responsible for most of the related ailments, was believed to be true in various forms until much later, passing through the Greek and Roman civilizations, up to the Middle Ages. Even today, thanks to the countless hoaxes spread on the web, it is possible to find traces of this belief.
In any case, it is in the Egyptian civilization that a professional figure comparable to that of today’s dentists can be identified for the first time. Papyri dating back to 3700 BC deal with teeth disease and describe remedies to be applied in the mouth to soothe pain, while the first references to the job of the dentist can be found in papers, again Egyptian, dating to 2700 BC, where a physician specialized in dental therapy is mentioned.
Hesyra, in particular, is important in this sense: born in the third millennium BC, he was known at the court of Pharaoh Netjerykhet (Djoser) by the title of “Head of dentists and physicians”.
Before him there was Hesy-Re, an Egyptian scribe, often called the “first dentist” whose tomb bears the inscription “the greatest of all those interested in teeth and of all physicians”; this is the first historical evidence that refers to dentistry.
Among the Greeks, Aristotle and Hippocrates wrote about dentistry between 500 and 300 BC, speaking of tooth eruption, the treatment of decayed teeth and gum diseases, extractions using forceps, and the use of metal wire to fix wobbly teeth or fractured jaws.
The Etruscans had skilled dentists, able, even in 700 BC, to make dentures; wide bands of pure gold with false teeth fixed to the band, designed to fit around the living teeth and replace the missing ones, have been found in some Etruscan tombs, These devices were prized so highly that in the Roman Empire an exception was even introduced to the Law of the Twelve Tables that prohibited burying the dead with gold. This refined craft died out after the fall of the Roman Empire.
Before beginning to investigate the medieval dental practice, we need to momentarily leave the old continent behind; it was the Arab civilization, that flourished while Europe was languishing in the gloom of the Dark Ages, that developed medical skills, in particular Anesthesiology and Surgery, also to highly complex levels. Indeed, a treatise written by Abulcasis, an Arab dentist born near Cordoba in Spain, that describes extractions, the reduction of fractures, and the treatment of dislocated jaws, dates back to the 11th century.
In China, an eighth-century medical text mentions the use of a particular “silver paste”, an early type of dental amalgam.
In Europe, the role of the dentist between the sixth and eleventh century was mainly held by the clergy: priests and monks who, at that time, were the only category that had access to the highest level of education.
They were often assisted in their surgical operations by barbers, who visited the monasteries and whose sharp blades were useful during surgery.
Indeed, barbers inherited the dental practice when, between 1130 and 1163, a series of papal edicts forbade monks to perform surgery, consequently preventing them also from performing extractions and other dental procedures.
The “Guild of Barbers” was established in France in 1210; the guild divided barbers into “surgeons” who had the instruments and skills needed to perform more complex operations, and “barber surgeons”, that alongside cutting beards and hair, performed more straightforward operations such as extractions and blood-letting.
Gradually, throughout Europe, bans and regulations further led barbers to abandon the dental practice and devote their time solely to hairdressing activities.
In Italy, the Guild of Barbers was established in 1271 in the Republic of Venice. Proof of the central role of barber-surgeons, sometimes also known as “cerusici” (from the Greek cheir-cheiros for hand, and ergon meaning work, which then became “chirurgicus” and, later, “cirurgicus-cirugico” and, finally, “cerusicus-cerusico”), is the fact that what is considered to be the first book on dental practice in Italian was written by one of these people, the Neapolitan Cintio D’Amato, entitled “Nuoua et vtilissima prattica di tutto quello ch’al diligente barbiero s’appartiene” (English translation: New and useful practice of everything that belongs to the diligent barber) and published in the second half of the seventeenth century.
However, the very first book devoted entirely to the dental discipline had seen the light as early as 1530 in Germany, written by Artzney Buchlein, which included topics, such as dental hygiene, extractions, dental drillings, and the laying of gold fillings.
In the mid 16th century, the Frenchman, Ambrose Paré, often considered the father of surgery, published his “Collected Works” that provided practical information about dentistry such as how to extract teeth and treat decayed teeth and broken jaws.
To continue this journey through the history of the dental practice, follow the next articles on our blog. In the meantime, if you have any questions about our products, please feel free to contact us.