Wednesday November 29, 2017

From tooth pullers to dentists: Dental care's 'really painful' history

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When it comes to the history of dentistry, "it's really, really painful."

'People before that were tooth pullers.' - Colin Jones

"Anesthetic only really came in in the middle of the 19th century," Colin Jones, a professor at Queen Mary University of London, tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

Jones, who has looked at the history of medicine and dentistry, says the word "dentist" wasn't used until the 18th century.

"People before that were tooth pullers."

The evolution of dentistry

Before the advent of modern dentistry, dental treatment was the same for the rich and the poor, according to Jones.

The author of The Smile Revolution in 18th Century Paris tells the story of King Louis XIV, who had great wealth and bad teeth.

A tooth puller was brought in, who probably used an extraction tool known as the pelican that not only removed the aching tooth but also took "a big chunk of the king's palette as well."

Pelican

The dental pelican, named because of its resemblance to a pelican’s beak, was used as a tooth extraction tool. (Karin Marley/CBC)

'You're on the same level as a peasant when it comes to tooth care.' - Colin Jones

Surgeons decided to cauterize the top of the Sun King's mouth to stop the infection, says Jones.

"When the guy's coming towards him with this red hot iron, he (Louis XIV) says to him, 'Treat me like a peasant.'"

"You could be the wealthiest, the most powerful king in Europe. You're on the same level as a peasant when it comes to tooth care."

U of T dental museum

A turn key, or key, used for extracting teeth. It would also sometimes accidentally pull out part of the jaw. (Karin Marley/CBC)

This starts to change in the 18th century when dentistry starts to enter the scientific field, according to Jones.

He points to the arrival and availability of sugar in the working class and peasant diets.

"Because the norm is bad teeth and falling out teeth, so preventive dentistry — white teeth — becomes a mark of distinction. You can actually pay for dental care. Someone can look after your teeth."

The 19th century ushered in a more systematic, more scientific approach, according to Jones, and in terms of the 20th and 21st century, the Americans led in terms of professional associations, certification, licencing, and training.

The evolution of teeth

Before the onset of agriculture, our teeth looked a lot better than they do today, says Peter Ungar, a paleoanthropologist  at the University of Arkansas. 

Evolution's Bite

Before the onset of agriculture, our teeth looked a lot better than they do today, says Peter Ungar. (Princeton University Press)

"We had fewer cavities. We had very little dental crowding. And that includes wisdom teeth. There were no problems whatsoever in the jaw."

The agriculture years meant humans started to eat soft, mushy foods that resulted in mouth problems, according to the  author of the book, Evolution's Bite: A Story of Teeth, Diet and Human Origins.

"It causes the jaw to be too short to accommodate the teeth which is why we have impacted wisdom teeth, and why they influence the other teeth."

'Their teeth are the same size as ours, but their jaws are longer so they accommodate the teeth better.' - Peter Ungar

Ungar looked at prehistoric peoples and the few remaining hunter gatherers left in the world and noted their jaws are much longer.

"Their teeth are the same size as ours, but their jaws are longer so they accommodate the teeth better."

In comparison, says Ungar, people in modern society don't put enough pressure or stress on our jaws to grow them to their potential length.

Even though we now have better dental care, we have problems that our ancestors never had, according to Ungar.

Our ancestors didn't have a lot of cavities because they were not consuming the kinds of refined carbohydrates that we do today, says Ungar.

"The more carbohydrates you consume, the more plaque bacteria you have, the more cavities you get."


Listen to Colin Jones's full interview at the top of this post. Also, hear University of Toronto's faculty of dentistry Jim Posluns give a tour of the dental museum, and Peter Ungar, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Arkansas, on the evolution of our teeth.

This segment was produced by The Current's Cathy Simon, Willow Smith and Karin Marley.