This week I went to the dentist, and as I hopped out of the chair with minimal pain, I was very glad for the improvements that the past centuries have brought to dentistry, and wondered how my poor, cavity ridden mouth would have fared a few centuries ago…
Around the time of the American Revolution, not many dentists existed on the continent. Most people who had teeth, had crooked and discolored teeth while others had few teeth at all. A problematic tooth meant seeking out a doctor or a common barber who most likely fixed the issue by extraction.
The firsts dentists in America came from England or France, where dental schools could be found. These trained individuals taught others who then practiced dentistry themselves, and while there were many trained individuals, there were also many charlatans and quacks.
According to The Foundations of Professional Dentistry, some of the notable names in early American dentistry were Robert Woofendale and John Baker. Robert Woofendale was one of the first men to practice dentistry full time in the States – for most it was a side profession intended to bring in a little money here and there. John Baker was a dentist in Boston who, based on entries from George Washington’s ledger book, did some dental work for the first president. Newspaper clippings (see below) from the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston News-Letter for Baker appeared in 1768, notifying patients of his leave and informing them that they could consult Paul Revere for any help. Apparently, Paul Revere, the famous man who warned colonists of the approaching British at the beginning of the American Revolution, also practiced dentistry in his spare time.
The 1800s witnessed an increase in dental literature that not only facilitated the spread of knowledge, but also helped develop consistent practices across the profession. It wasn’t until 1840, however, that a dental school was established in Baltimore. Until this time, dental students continued to learn from dentists, in an apprentice-like manner.
Below is a smattering of interesting articles and advertisements from catalogs and journals related to the field of dentistry.