The first dentists

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Last updated: 17/12/2010

Pierre Fauchard, from Le Chirurgien Dentiste, 1728The term 'dentist' first appeared in the 18th century. The French dentist Pierre Fauchard published his treatise Le Chirurgien Dentiste in 1728. This set out for the first time everything that was known about dental disease with full case histories and illustrations of how to deal with it. Never before had every aspect of dentistry been fully expounded in a single work. There were chapters on scaling the teeth, filing them, false teeth, extraction and moving teeth for orthodontic purposes.

Dentures from Le Chirurgien Dentiste, 1728By the 1750s the term dentist was being used to describe tooth operators in Britain. We see them advertising in the expanding press. The range of dentists’ work extended to restorative techniques and treatment of gum diseases and included scaling, fillings, dentures and even tooth whitening. A certain Mrs Hunter advertised an annual fee of 4 guineas for services and products which included toothpowder, tincture and brushes. The demand for their services was now growing and the few dentists that there were often went on tours of several weeks duration across the UK. The rise in demand may have been because sugar consumption was increasing and people's teeth were getting worse: an excavation of Spitalfields, London, which contained burials from 1729-1852 found that 87 per cent of people had cavities. This was despite the fact that the 18th century saw the first modern, commercially manufactured toothbrush. In 1780 William Addis started selling brushes made with cow bone handles and horse hair or pig hair for the bristles. They sold at 6d, only a couple of pounds in today's money but far too expensive for most people.

If extraction was required a new instrument the toothkey was developed, less brutal than its medieval predecessor the pelican. Dentures typically were made from walrus, elephant or hippopotamus ivory. For a more realistic look human teeth were riveted into the base. Waterloo teethThese dentures became known as ‘Waterloo teeth’ as the teeth were sourced from battlefields as well as mortuaries. Further developments at the end of the century saw experiments with sets made completely from porcelain. Unfortunately these often shrunk and were the subject of derision. It was not until an appropriate material for the base was found (vulcanite) that porcelain teeth became a success.

Transplanting of teeth by Thomas Rowlandson, 1787During the last couple of decades of the century, there was a craze for the transplanting of teeth. Thomas Rowlandson captures this in his image showing a poor man having a healthy tooth removed for it to be inserted into the wealthy client's mouth and tied onto her surrounding teeth with silken thread. Of course all such treatments were expensive with full dentures costing 20 guineas (about £500 in today’s money). Find out more in a film made with the involvement of the museum.