The history of orthodontic treatment goes further back in history than you might expect, with evidence of devices to correct the position and alignment of teeth going back many thousands of years.
The earliest example of the use of metal to adjust teeth has been uncovered by archaeologists in Ancient Egypt. Mummified bodies have been discovered with basic metal bands wrapped around individual teeth. It’s thought that catgut – a fibre made from the walls of animal intestines (yes, really!) – would have done the same job as modern orthodontic wire, linking the bands to help close gaps between the teeth.
Further on in history, the Etruscans – the predecessors of the Romans – used to bury their dead with dental equipment places in their mouths to ensure their teeth did not collapse before reaching the afterlife. It may not have helped them much when they were alive, but it shows a growing understanding of the importance of straight and well-maintained teeth.
There is also evidence that the Romans themselves continued this fascination with adjusting uneven teeth. The body of a Roman citizen was uncovered in a tomb with several teeth bound together with gold wire. This is thought to be the earliest example of a ligature wire – an orthodontic connector which helps draw teeth into the correct position.
A Roman doctor and philosopher, Aulus Cornelius Celsus, spent his entire life studying and learning new medical procedures. He kept comprehensive records of his studies, within which has been found the earliest recorded attempt to realign or straighten teeth using finger pressure.
Celsus wrote about a case which involved applying pressure to a patient’s teeth at regular intervals using just his fingers. Celsus concluded that the teeth were gradually moving and being repositioned thanks to the continued exposure to finger pressure.
We have to fast forward quite far through time again to see any further progress in the use of dental braces in history. The 17th Century was a time which saw considerable advances in dentistry as a profession. This, along with key developments in technology, meant that orthodontics finally began to grow and progress as a specialism.
18th Century French dentist Pierre Fauchard is often credited as the inventor of modern orthodontics. He published a book in 1728 called “Le Chirurgien Dentiste” (translated as “The Surgeon Dentist”) in which he wrote about methods for straightening teeth. Fauchard also used a treatment device called a “bandeau”, a horseshoe-shaped piece of iron that was used to expand a patient’s dental arch.
Fauchard’s work was followed up by another French dentist, Louis Bourdet, who in fact cared for the teeth of two kings of France, Louis XV and Louis XVI. Bourdet also wrote a book, published in 1754, called “The Dentist’s Art”, which dedicated a chapter to tooth realignment and adjustment. Bourdet also enhanced the bandeau, as well as being the first recorded dentist to advise extraction of premolar teeth to help prevent overcrowding and allow healthy jaw growth.
The 19th Century saw orthodontics first properly established as a separate science, with several important advancements in the field. In 1819, Christophe-Francois Delabarre (another Frenchman) invented the wire crib. This was a semi-circular device placed over the teeth to hold them in place and is considered to be the starting point for contemporary orthodontics.
Orthodontic practitioners started using rubber in tooth correction during the 1800s, with gum elastics and rubber dental dams first developed during this century. In 1893, an American dentist called Henry A. Baker devised what he called the “Baker anchorage”. This essentially combined the concepts of the wire crib and the gum elastics developed earlier. Baker’s method made it possible for teeth to be realigned without the need for several teeth to be removed.
The discovery of x-rays at the end of the 19th Century also helped to advance orthodontic treatment. A dentist called Eugene S. Talbot was the first to include x-rays as part of orthodontic procedure, using the process to discover impacted teeth hidden under the gum that may. Talbot suggested that removing these teeth would prevent overcrowding from happening in the patient’s mouth.
These advancements led orthodontics to an important event at the start of the 20th Century – the invention of “braces”, the first time that term would be used to describe an orthodontic device. It’s a development that would lead to the 1900s being perhaps the most exciting period in the history of orthodontics yet.
From the 1970s onwards, the developments in braces have been so copious and advanced the field so dramatically that they could fill an article ten times as long as this on their own. If you could tell the Ancient Egyptians, Romans or even 19th Century dentists that we now have virtually invisible braces that can straighten teeth in as little as six months, just imagine what their reaction would be.
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