The Roots of Dental Care

Valley Dentist You know that doctors were once also barbers (that’s where the barber pole comes from), but what about dental care? How long have dentists been working with dentures, implants, and other dental advances?

While it’s true that false teeth have been around since 700 BCE, when the Etruscans made dentures from human and animal teeth, many advances happened in many areas of the world. The Japanese developed wood dentures in the 1400s, and the first porcelain dentures were made around 1770.

“One of the most interesting stories about dentures is George Washington’s,” says Dr. Carol Ford from her Phoenix practice. “He lost most of his teeth by the time he was 40, and the changing dentures changed the shape of his entire face,” Dr. Ford continues.

The popular idea that George Washington had wooden dentures is not entirely false; the dentures he used were ivory, wood, and metal—including lead. And they didn’t fit well. But according to Barbara Glover, a researcher of the Revolutionary War, “The upper denture had ivory teeth and the lower plate consisted of eight human teeth fastened by gold pivots that screwed into the base. The set was secured in his mouth by spiral springs.” The previous set had been attached to the few remaining teeth in Washington’s mouth. This may have been the 1789 version of All-on-Four; the change of dentures actually changed the shape of Washington’s face.

In 1795, Washington was painted by Gilbert Stuart (who painted the image used on the dollar bill). Notice the rectangular face, prominent nose, high cheekbones and firm chin.

In the 1797 Stuart painting, Washington’s face is square-shaped, his nose tips down, and his cheeks are broader and lower.

“Dentures are still popular, and can still change the shape of your face,” Dr. Ford says. “Many dentists now use titanium implants to hold permanent dentures. Implants are a fairly recent development, and one that promotes not only dental health but also helps you look younger,” continues Dr. Ford. “Good implants help retain the shape of your facial bones and prevent that ‘fallen mouth’ look that makes you look older,” she adds.

Dental implants, like dentures, have a long history. The first implants were shells embedded in the jawbones of the Aztecs tribes in Middle America in 600 BCE.  Titanium blades were inserted into bone by the mid-1970s, but the current screw-base is more stable.

“The history of dentistry is fascinating, because people have always been interested in enjoying food and looking healthy,” Dr. Ford says, “and as long as we gather to share food and smile to show we appreciate our friends, we’ll look for ways to have bright, healthy teeth.”

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