There is little record of ancient dentistry practices other than what is evident in excavated skulls and dentures lefts as artifacts. Dentures were often made from ivory, animal teeth, shells, or even human teeth from the deceased or poor people willing to pull them in order to sell them. Such dentures were used even through Colonial American times and into the Industrial Revolution! Gold has a long history of use in dentistry, going back to around 200 AD. Gold has been used for fillings and to make primitive crowns and bridges. One skull found in ancient Egypt had bridgework made from human teeth strung together and attached to surrounding teeth with gold wire! Let’s see what a few other historical dental restoration techniques and substances were like…
As stated above, dentures were made from things such as bone, ivory, donor teeth, and gold through most of human history. Porcelain dentures came into use in the U.S. in the early 1800s, and dentists soon learned to make molds of patients’ mouths to better fit their gums. Combined with the formulation of the rubber-based substance called Vulcanite (invented by Charles Goodyear, the namesake of Goodyear Tire) and dentures had become much more comfortable and effective by the mid-1800s. Plastics and acrylics came onto the scene in the early part of the 20th century, and resulted in early versions of modern dentures.
The Ancient Etruscans made crowns from ivory, bone, or gold. Porcelain jacket crowns weren’t invented until 1903 and paved the way for the more durable porcelain-fused-to-metal crowns to be developed in the 1950s. Advances in technology now give us ceramic and resin crowns as well.
Amalgam fillings have been used in the U.S. for almost 200 years, and there is some evidence that similar fillings were used in China in the 16th century. The mercury used in these fillings has caused controversy in both modern times and historically. Several European countries banned amalgam fillings in 2008 due to concerns of mercury exposure and pollution, but in the United States the American Dental Association maintains confidence that amalgams have a proven safety and efficacy record.
Composite fillings came into the picture sometime in the early 1900s, but weren’t very effective at first. The 1950’s saw the invention of the acid-etch technique, which made them adhere more successfully, but they were still susceptible to leaking. The modern technique using light activated resin was developed in the ’60s, became more widespread during the ’80s, and further improved in the 1990s. Though more aesthetically pleasing, amalgam fillings typically outlast composites. Composite fillings have an expected lifetime of 2-10 years, but are known to last longer.
Looking back at this interesting dental past, isn’t it impressive how far we’ve come in such a short time? Most of the advances that have been in tooth restoration have occurred in the last century or two with no notable development prior to that. It’s clear that we live in glorious times for our teeth, and the future of dentistry is a bright one!