History of Dentistry – Part 4 – 19th Century

“Waterloo teeth” is probably not an expression many of us, thankfully, have ever heard of. Relating to the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, poor dead soldiers were relieved of their teeth which were then placed into dentures. In fact, these teeth were typically removed from healthy young men, which was an upgrade from previous teeth which might be degraded or even have a transmissible bacterial infection. While most people disapproved of such practices, it didn’t stop soldiers from pilfering ivories during the Crimean and American Civil Wars – until porcelain, vulcanite, and other materials were manufactured, which let poor soldiers rest peacefully – and intact.


An 1827 engraving by Louis Leopold Boilly, entitled “The Steel Balm.”


The First Dental School
It was during that period of time that there was a movement to establish dentistry as a real profession. Chapin Harris and Horace Hayden from the University of Maryland Medical School petitioned their school to make a dentistry department. At the time, there were no dental clinics. Dentists tended to get hands-on practice at other dentists’ offices. Their university declined their request, so Harris and Hayden moved to Maryland General Assembly to found the first dental school in 1840. It was called the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery.
Other dental schools were also being founded in the country. The first dental school connected to a university was that at Harvard University in 1867. It wasn’t until 1868 that licensure began in the states of New York, Ohio, and Kentucky.
More Denture Advances
In 1839, Charles Goodyear invented the vulcanization process for hardening rubber. Vulcanite was a cheap material that could be shaped to the mouth. It made a good base for false teeth and was quickly embraced by dentists. Unfortunately, as the molding process for vulcanite dentures was patented, the dental community fought the extravagant fees for the next twenty-five years.

An upper set of dentures made from human teeth set into a carved ivory base, circa 1850-1870. Via Canada’s Museum of Healthcare.

Anesthesia (Finally!)
In 1844, a Connecticut dentist called Horace Wells discovered that he could use nitrous oxide as an anesthesia. He used it successfully for a number of extractions in his practice. Although he attempted to use it in a public demonstration in 1845, apparently the patient cried out during the operation, so it was considered to be a failure. A year later, William Morton, a dentist and student of Wells, publically demonstrated the effectiveness of ether as an anesthetic during an operation. And even Queen Victoria popularized anesthetics when she used chloroform to deliver her eighth child in 1853.
No More Tooth Worms!
The dentist Willoughby Dayton Miller published The Micro-organisms of the Human Mouth in 1890. He took the ideas of Pierre Fauchard a step further. He discovered that dental caries were actually the results of bacterial activity. This would permanently change how dentists actually understood tooth decay. Furthermore, it activated a huge interest in oral hygiene and started a worldwide movement to promote regular tooth brushing and flossing.
As you can see, dentistry has come a long way from the days of bloodletting and dental “keys.” Stay tuned for 20th century developments, especially the advancement of oral hygiene and dental hygienists.

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