The Great British Bite

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In the 21st century, a trip to the dentist is a routine and regular part of life. Many procedures are very simple and pain free, but it hasn’t always been that way. Here is a brief history of dentistry for our unlucky ancestors.

Pre 19th Century

If our ancestors suffered from toothache in the 19th century, extraction was the only treatment available to cure the pain. The dentistry profession was run by amateurs like blacksmiths and barbers, who performed grisly back-street procedures – usually resulting in death….! Tools such as wielded pliers were used for pulling teeth and the patients jaw was used for leverage. This led to the death of tens of thousands of people from infections, botched treatments and other complications. Rotten and neglected teeth were a part of daily life due to the sheer terror of the dental procedure.

18th Century

It wasn’t until the late 18th century when more understanding of dentistry started to occur. A failed doctor, John Hunter, published a ground breaking book called ‘Natural History of the Human Teeth’. He offered a scientific view and invented names for all teeth, which are still used to this day. The book also included detailed drawings of the interior of the mouth, which were used for teaching. However he started an oral hygiene epidemic, by suggesting transplanting teeth from the living to the dead, which became a craze. With this the rich paid the poor to give up their healthy teeth, but this caused an outbreak of infections and diseases.

19th Century

Affordable sugar started to arrive in the 19th century from the West Indies, leading to soaring cases of tooth decay. Then in 1874 a tax on the goods was revoked, so for the first time the working class people could indulge in their sweet tooth. During this period drills were introduced as a replacement method for removing the rotten part of a tooth.  Nitrous oxide, also known as laughing gas, was also discovered as the first chemical used for pain relief. Cocaine became a popular choice as a painkiller and was injected into the jaw in liquid form.

20th Century onwards

Even in the 20th century tooth extraction was still common as dentistry was so expensive – people would rather spare themselves a lifetime of pain. People would even go to such lengths of having all their teeth removed. It was then weirdly considered a gift for the removed teeth, to be given as a gift on a special occasion, such as a 21st birthday or a newly married bride. It wasn’t until the NHS came along in 1948, when dental care became affordable for all.