We commonly imagine people in the past as having had completely decayed teeth, as if no one actually cared for their teeth. In reality, people in the past not only had less sugar in their diets—a positive for oral health—but they also took active steps to clean their teeth. While they didn’t necessarily have as good oral hygiene as we do today, they also didn’t all suffer from the terrible oral health conditions we often imagine.

Oral Care in Ancient Cultures

For much of history, humans have been constructing casual “chewing sticks” and teeth picks that used friction to remove debris. In Ancient Greece, Hippocrates (the person who made the Hippocratic Oath, related to doctors doing no harm) and Aristotle wrote about dentistry knowledge and treating decaying teeth in different sections of their book.

During Roman times, they would cut sections of a carved wooden stick into different sections to use as a crude toothbrush. Along with the fact that they had different diets, they didn’t have dentists for routine cleanings and preemptive care the way we do today. Ancient Rome’s version of dentists were more akin to oral surgeons, only performing emergency dental work as needed.

There were descriptions of dentists in Sumeria in 5,000 B.C. however, describing tooth worms causing tooth decay—a false idea that persisted until the 18th century. Sumerian dentists did however, have a large amount of recipes for tonics and topical ointments that could be used to treat toothaches and allow mouth numbness. 

The Beginning of Modern Dentistry

The first forming of what we might recognize as modern dentistry began in the 1700s, when a French surgeon published The Surgeon Dentist. This was the first complete text to start many of the ideas that would eventually lead to later breakthroughs in dentistry—breakthroughs including dental fillings made of several different materials, dental prosthesis, and insight into the acidic effect on teeth.

This seminal work is why Pierre Fauchard is often called “The Father of Modern Dentistry.” Pierre picked up most of his techniques by doing things such as observing watchmakers work, noticing how their unique tools could be used on teeth, and studying how acid acted on other materials.

Into the 19th & 20th Centuries

Going into the 1800s, more and more dental colleges were created, leading to more uniformity in the profession. The 1840s saw the first set of laws regarding the practice, which had originally been something that anyone could practice. Harvard founded its dental school in 1867. By 1873, Colgate was making toothpaste.

Moving into the 20th century is when most of the modern materials we now use were first formulated, as well as modern techniques like the X-Ray, which was first used in 1896. Sedation dentistry, which had been practiced through the use of nitrous oxide since the 1700s, had started to become widespread through the 20th century.

Despite these breakthroughs, it took quite a long time for Americans to adopt proper brushing techniques. It was not until Colgate added mint to their toothpaste and began marketing their products more aggressively that Americans began properly caring for their teeth. While dentists had been pushing this for a long time, it is somewhat unique that marketers actually created the habits that stuck by creating new toothpastes and brushes that would finally be widely adopted.