History of Dentistry

On this date in 1867, *Harvard Dental School,* *the first university-based dental school in the United States was founded*. Before the school’s founding, aspiring dentists went to freestanding trade schools or learned by apprenticeship. The world’s first dental training program had been founded in Baltimore in 1840, but dentistry wasn’t considered a branch of medicine, and programs were not included in curricula. Harvard Dental School represented a dramatic change in the way dentistry was viewed.

Prior to the 19th century, your treatment options were extremely limited: If you had a toothache, you went to the barber-surgeon — or even the blacksmith — to have the tooth pulled, with no anesthesia. The wealthy could afford to have the gap filled with a replacement tooth, which could be bought from someone who was willing to sell his or her own teeth. If you didn’t want to pay the premium price, you could buy the teeth of a cadaver. Sometimes these were collected from battlefields, and were called “Waterloo teeth.” A grave robber could get five guineas for a good set of corpse teeth. But buying replacement human teeth came with risks, too: You might contract tuberculosis or syphilis. Some people had dentures made from ivory, porcelain, or even gold. After Charles Goodyear invented the vulcanization of rubber, you could buy “Vulcanite” dentures made of hard rubber. By the middle of the 19th century, dentists were beginning to use nitrous oxide, chloroform, and ether to perform oral surgery painlessly.

/from the July 17, 2012 issue of “The Writer’s Almanac,” by Garrison Keillor/

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