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Non-western Advances

Cultures outside Western civilization also focused on the teeth. The Chinese were the first to develop a silver amalgam filling, which was mentioned in medical texts as early as A.D. 659. The Chinese also developed full dentures by the twelfth century A.D. and invented the toothbrush model for our contemporary toothbrushes in the fifteenth century. Dental advances also flourished in the Islamic culture, which emerged around the spiritual and political power of Muhammad (570-632) and his followers. Innovators drew from the translated works of Aristotle, Plato, and Hippocrates, whose work was translated by Egyptians with links to Greece.

Mohammed's teaching called explicitly for the maintenance of clean teeth. Clean teeth were seen as a way of praising God, and he was reported to say "a prayer which is preceded by the use of the toothpick is worth 75 ordinary prayers." Dental powders, mouth wash, and polishing sticks were used to keep teeth clean.

Dental surgery advanced greatly with the teaching of Albucasis (936-1013), a surgeon whose extensive writing about surgery in the Al-Tasrif influenced Islamic and medieval European medical practitioners. He described surgery for dental irregularities, the use of gold wire to make teeth more stable, and the use of artificial teeth made of ox-bone. Albucasis also was one of the first to document the size and shape of dental tools, including drawings of dental saws, files, and extraction forceps in his book.

As the Islamic world moved ahead in dentistry, European dental practice was overwhelmed by the superstition, ignorance, and religious fervor of the Middle Ages. Scientific research was discouraged during the medieval era, which stretched from the fifth to the fifteenth century. Suffering and illness were widely considered to be punishment from God. Knowledge of dental anatomy and treatment did not advance during the Middle Ages, though the range of superstitious dental treatments flowered.

One fourteenth century therapy called for eating the brains of a hare to make lost teeth grow again. Charms made of stone, wood, or paper devoted to a religious figure were believed to ward off disease. Religious officials suggested prayer as the best protector.

The practice of dentistry during the Middle Ages was generally limited to the pulling of teeth that were decayed or destroyed. This task initially fell to barbers, who also performed minor surgery in England in the fifteenth century and were called barber-surgeons. Transient tooth-pullers, who traveled from place to place, also made money extracting teeth.

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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