Heywood's History of Dentistry

A brief, maybe-true or maybe-not-so-true history of the dental profession, according to Heywood.

As you probably noticed while standing in the "express" lane at the grocery store the past 30 minutes, this month's issue is honoring the Top Dentists in our area. They are part of the over 200,000 practicing dentists nationwide, with almost 13,000 of them practicing in Texas alone. And the profession is growing. For good reason. Consider the fact that most people say that a person's smile is the first physical trait they notice. And nobody wants teeth that look like corn. That might be part of the reason why Americans spent over $120 billion on dental care last year.

You may not know this, but dentistry has been around over 7,000 years. People didn't smile much back then because they were either chasing or being chased by wild animals. Couple that with the fact that, like today, there was nothing funny on television. That's probably just as well. All their teeth looked like small replicas of Stonehenge.

However, early dentists were concerned about the pain from tooth decay. They believed that cavities were due to "tooth worms." Treatment sometimes consisted of a mixture of beeswax and herbs, but most of the time the tooth was just pulled. No charge if you bled to death.

Surprisingly, thanks to the Mayans, cosmetic dentistry wasn't far behind. They weren't all that great at predicting the end of the world, but their dentists had a unique way of sprucing up a smile. First, they would drill small openings in all the teeth. Then they would place a variety of precious stones in the crevices and adhere them with a little tree sap. Sure, that might sound primitive, but even today it might be pretty hard to resist someone with blue opal front teeth and lava rock molars.

But even as early as 200 A.D., some civilizations in Italy had developed dental prosthetics, bridgework and gold crowns. That was a quite an accomplishment considering the fact that at the same time in Medieval Germany, the only cure for a toothache was to kiss a donkey. (True.) However, the major achievements in dentistry came much later.

In 1498, China produced the very first toothbrush. It had bristles made from the hair of horses, hogs and badgers. It worked better as a back scratcher for the next 400 years until Colgate developed a new toothpaste that people could finally tolerate. Prior to that time, toothpaste generally consisted of soap, chalk and sometimes ground charcoal. But the new toothpaste didn't address another big dental problem that had been plaguing mankind for thousands of years. Bad breath. Enter Joseph Lister. As a physician during the 1800s, Lister developed a surgical antiseptic for hospital patients, but it wound up being used for cleaning feet, floor scrubbing and a couple of STDs. But Lister died before he saw its biggest success. Some guy decided to market it as a mouthwash. That's right. Listerine. The same foot and floor cleaner you're probably gargling with today.

Dentistry actually became a defined profession during the 1700s, and since then, some notable people in history took up the practice. Paul Revere was a dentist and was the first person known to use dental forensics for identification. The man who invented the electric chair, Alfred P. Southwick, was also a dentist. I guess his dental work was so painful that some of his patients would opt for that.

But modern dentistry is not only painless, it also employs state-of-the-art technology. I just wish they had all of today's technology back in the days when Leonardo da Vinci was alive. Rumor has it that the reason Mona Lisa had that tight-lipped smile was because she had bad teeth. I bet even Leo would have preferred painting Mona taking a selfie while flashing some brand new veneers.