History of Dentistry – Part 3 – The 18th Century

Back in April, we left you hanging with part 2 of our Dental History Post Series. Sorry for the delay! Below is part 3, and we’ll be quicker to get parts 4 & 5 out in the next week or so. Thanks!


Modern dentistry began to truly take shape during the 1700’s.  Because there was so much global trade and exploration, there were many changes to what westerners began to eat.  People were able to nosh much more easily on things like sugar, which meant more dental problems.  And while people were generally healthier and living longer lives, they were also dealing with more tooth decay.  During this time doctors were exploring new methods for dealing with teeth, but at the same time, they were still often very painful.


The “Dental Key”

During the 1700’s, the torturous “pelican” gave rise to the equally painful tooth key.  One part of the tooth “key” was put on top of the tooth.  The metal rod was put against the root, and then the key turned.  Ideally the tooth would pop out.  Unfortunately, this didn’t always happen, which meant the decaying and weakened tooth had shattered and needed to be picked piece by piece from the bleeding gums.  This certainly wasn’t much of an advancement from previous centuries.


An illustration of dental keys for tooth extraction from Savigny’s catalog of surgery implements, circa 1798.


Tooth Implantations

During this period of time, there was actually some experimentation with implanting teeth in Europe.   If you had enough money for this procedure, you could choose between dead and living (!) teeth.  Dead teeth were sometimes taken from a prior patient or from a cadaver. Live teeth were usually from a slave or someone who was poor.  In any case, compensation was virtually nil if at all.  The “new” tooth was then put in the socket and held into place with silver wire or silk ligatures.


The Tooth Worm Finally Dies

Pierre Fauchard, the father of modern dentistry, finally dispelled the belief that tooth worms were causing tooth decay.  In his book The Surgeon Dentist, A Treatise on Teeth, he stated sugar was actually responsible for dental decay. He also described basic oral anatomy and how it functioned, possible restorative techniques, and even how to construct dentures.








Our Poor Suffering President

Unfortunately, this knowledge hadn’t yet traversed the seas to reach what would be known as the USA.  In fact, our first president George Washington suffered from some intense tooth issues throughout his life.  Common cleaning practices during that time actually helped to destroy his teeth, and it was known that he only had one – one! – natural tooth when he was sworn into office.  He went through a series of dentures composed both of ivory and human teeth throughout his life, and a scar on his cheek in a famous portrait is hypothesized to have been caused by an infected tooth.


In the 1770’s, the famous Paul Revere dabbled as an amateur dentist.  He used his skills as a silversmith to fashion dentures made of ivory or animal teeth.  In 1776, he unknowingly was the first person to practice forensic dentistry in the USA.  He was able to identify the body of a friend by identifying a bridge he had made for him.


Significant Advances

There were definitely more significant advances to be made in the field of dentistry.  In 1780, William Addis manufactured the first modern toothbrush.  While there had been a number of different types of toothbrushes created earlier, this was the first time that one had actually been mass produced. Along with the toothbrush, Josiah Flagg, an American dentist, made the first dental chair with an adjustable headrest and arm extension for dental instruments.




As you can see, there was some definite headway made in the field of dentistry during the 18th century even if the beginnings were still questionable.  Next up, the 19th century makes advances in medical journals as well as modern anesthesia (finally!).

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