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Dentistry, like medicine itself, is a very old concept, which isn’t a surprise. After all, if there’s one thing that’s tough to ignore, then it’s a toothache. But between the time of the Sumerians (around 5000 B.C.) and around 1530, people seemed to muddle on with things as they were, and there aren’t really any documented changes in the way people wrote or practiced dentistry.

In the 1700s, however, dentistry began to take off in a real way. For the first time, people with the means and access could see professionals who took an approach to dentistry that didn’t include trying to get rid of evil spirits or yanking a sore tooth out with a pair of pliers. Huge leaps forward were made, but why?

Something else happened in the 1700s that likely made the dentistry more pressing, particularly for wealthy Europeans with a sweet tooth. Here’s how dentistry began in Europe, why it was needed, and how it began to sweep more than one continent.

How Modern Dentistry Began in France

In 1723, Pierre Fauchard, a surgeon by trade, published The Surgeon Dentist, a Treatise on Teeth for the first time. The Surgeon Dentist wasn’t exactly a page-turner a la John Le Carre, but it was groundbreaking. Through this, Fauchard outlined a comprehensive oral care system for the first (known) time in history.

Fauchard also corrected a few ancient myths. Thousands of years before, the Sumerians suggested that dental decay was the product of tooth worms or evil spirits, depending on who you asked. But Fauchard said, “No! It is sucre!” (in what we imagine to be an admittedly modern French accent). In his work, he also covered the art of filling a cavity, the design and use of braces, and the introduction of dental prostheses (dentures).

Fauchard’s work was huge for the field of dentistry, mostly because there wasn’t any field of dentistry before it. After all, prior to the 18th century, people got their aching teeth pulled by barbers who used the winning combination of brute force and whiskey.

Why the 1700s?

We’ve talked before about the long history of dentistry. How did it take almost 7,000 years to go from tooth worms to fillings? It’s hard to say, and we can only speak in the European context here.

People have always had teeth, and people have always had toothaches. However, the biggest modern contributor to our pains arrived in force in the 1700s: sugar. Sugar quite literally changed the world: it remapped the Western hemisphere, brought in unimaginable wealth (the British called it “white gold”), and absolutely rotted Georgian people’s teeth. Specifically, sugar consumption increased two-fold in Britain between 1690 and 1740.

Sugar was the engine that powered the slave trade and colonialism in the 16th and 17th centuries. The wealth that sugar created potentially even financed American independence (in part by causing the British Navy to rush to protect its Caribbean assets). More importantly, people initially thought sugar was good for you. A book from 1715 titled A Vindication of Sugars argued that you could extend your life by adding it to your wine and even brushing your teeth with it. Sugar was like an early fad diet that people could have certainly lived without.

Given the emergence of modern dentistry only a few decades into the century, it clearly didn’t take long to realize that brushing your teeth with sugar wasn’t the best way to protect your health as you age, which as we’ve come to learn in modern times, requires regular exercise and, most importantly, eating healthy foods that don’t rot your teeth.

How Dentistry Spread in the 18th Century

The French weren’t the only colonial power to find a need for dentistry — the English also followed suit. Thomas Berdmore published his best-known work, Disorders of Deformities of the Teeth and Gums, in 1770. His book discussed preventative dentistry and early periodontics. Berdmore wasn’t just any dentist, though — he was a dentist to King George III. (Fun fact: Berdmore’s book was published after Fauchard had already seen two editions of his book published, including a German translation. Fauchard’s book only made it into the English language in 1946. Must they learn everything for themselves?)

Berdmore also apprenticed other young dentists, including Robert Woofendale, who was one of the first to bring the practice to North America. Woofendale’s (and those like him) work is important because it helps dispel the long-standing myth that George Washington wore dentures. Thanks to the help of emerging dentistry, Washington’s dentures were made of ivory and even human teeth, a concept not so different from the restorative dentistry used today.

Of course, this overview is only brief. The French and English were far from the only people to go beyond brushing during the 18th century. If you’re curious about the development in dentistry in not only Britain and France but also the Netherlands, Germany, and Hungary as well as the diaspora, then consider finding C. Hilliam’s book Dental Practice in Europe at the End of the 18th Century for a fuller look at how we stopped chewing on chairs and started brushing twice a day.

About the Author:
Frankie Wallace contributes to a wide variety of blogs and writes about many different topics, including politics and the environment. Wallace currently resides in Boise, Idaho and is a recent graduate of the University of Montana.