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Skill And Superstition

Ancient, medieval, and early Renaissance dental practice can be seen as a stew of the sensible and the outrageous. In each era, stories of practitioners with wisdom and skill coexist with outrageous tales of superstition and myth connected to teeth. In the ancient and Islamic worlds, doctors often performed dental work. The cleaning and extracting of teeth was often performed by individuals with little or no medical training.

Ancient men and women worked hard to alleviate dental pain. As early as 1550 B.C., the ancient Egyptians documented their interest in dentistry in the Ebers Papyrus, a document discovered in 1872. The Papyrus listed various remedies for toothache, including such familiar ingredients as dough, honey, onions, incense, and fennel seeds.

The Egyptians also turned to superstition for help preventing tooth pain. The mouse, which was considered to be protected by the Sun and capable of fending off death, was often used by individuals with a toothache. A common remedy involved applying half of the body of a dead mouse to the aching tooth while the body was still warm.

The Greeks offered a variety of conventional and unconventional dental therapy. One of the more illustrious dental pioneers was Hippocrates (460–375 B.C.), whose admonition to do no harm continues to be a central goal of medical practice. Hippocrates said that food lodged between teeth was responsible for tooth decay, and suggested pulling teeth that were loose and decayed.

Hippocrates also offered advice for bad breath. He suggested a mouth wash containing oil of anise seed and myrrh and white wine. Other ancient Greeks took a more superstitious approach, with some depending on the mythical power of the mouse to protect their teeth. A recipe for bad breath from the fifth century B.C. called for a range of ingredients including the bodies of three mice, including one whose intestines had been removed, and the head of a hare. The ingredients were burned and mixed with dust and water before consumption.

The Etruscans, who lived in Tuscany, Italy, between approximately 1000 and 400 B.C., also made great advances in dentistry. They are often cited for the sophistication of their gold crowns and bridges. One bridge which has been preserved included three artificial teeth attached to gold bands, which hooked around the natural teeth. The artificial teeth were actually real teeth taken from an immature calf, then divided in two.

The Romans built upon the Etruscan knowledge of dentistry and took seriously the challenge of keeping teeth healthy. Celsus, a Roman writer who lived about 100 B.C., wrote about toothache, dental abscesses and other dental ailments. For toothache, which he called "among the worst of tortures," he suggested the use of hot poultices, mouthwash, and steam. He also suggested using pain-killers such as opium. The Romans also made bridgework.

Clean teeth were valued by the Romans, and affluent families had slaves clean their mouths using small sticks of wood and tooth powder. Such powders could include burned eggshell, bay-leaves and myrrh. These powders could also include more unusual ingredients, such as burned heads of mice and lizard livers. Earth worms marinated in vinegar were used for a mouth wash, and urine was thought of as a gum strengthener.

The Romans, like individuals in many other cultures, believed that worms in the teeth caused pain. A vast well of superstition can also be found concerning the premature appearance of teeth. Babies born with one or more teeth were considered dangerous in Africa, Madagascar, and India, and were at one point killed. In contrast, the ancient Romans considered children born with teeth to be special, and children were often given a name, "Dentatus" in reference to their early dental development.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Cyanohydrins to Departments of philosophy:Dentistry - Skill And Superstition, Non-western Advances, From Counting Teeth To Replacing Them, A Look Forward - Modern dentistry