History of Dentistry

The ADA Library and Archives has made it easier to find historical information about the origins of dentistry, as well as the creation of the American Dental Association.

How it all began

Learn about the evolution of dentistry and the American Dental Association.
Visit the following links to delve deeper into a variety of themes and time periods that draw on the archives’ rich and varied collections. If you can't find what you're looking for, please reach out to us.
View a living, changing chronical of the history of the American Dental Association.
Landing page
Landing page
Get a glimpse at every ADA President since 1860.
Read the story of the ADA, recounting how it was set up and its founding members.
Learn about the design and construction of the ADA headquarters completed in 1965.
Take a peek into the fascinating history of the family sculpture commissioned in 1964.
Explore this list of dental history books curated by the ADA Archivist.

History of Dentistry Timeline

Ancient Origins
5000 BC
A Sumerian text of this date describes “tooth worms” as the cause of dental decay.
2600 BC
Death of Hesy-Re, an Egyptian scribe, often called the first “dentist.” An inscription on his tomb includes the title “the greatest of those who deal with teeth, and of physicians.” This is the earliest known reference to a person identified as a dental practitioner.
1700-1550 BC
An Egyptian text, the Ebers Papyrus, refers to diseases of the teeth and various toothache remedies.
500-300 BC
Hippocrates and Aristotle write about dentistry, including the eruption pattern of teeth, treating decayed teeth and gum disease, extracting teeth with forceps, and using wires to stabilize loose teeth and fractured jaws.
100 BC
Celsus, a Roman medical writer, writes extensively in his important compendium of medicine on oral hygiene, stabilization of loose teeth, and treatments for toothache, teething pain, and jaw fractures.
166-201 AD
The Etruscans practice dental prosthetics using gold crowns and fixed bridgework.
The Beginnings of a Profession - Middle Ages
A medical text in China mentions the use of “silver paste,” a type of amalgam.
A Guild of Barbers is established in France. Barbers eventually evolve into two groups: surgeons who were educated and trained to perform complex surgical operations; and lay barbers, or barber-surgeons, who performed more routine hygienic services including shaving, bleeding and tooth extraction.
A series of royal decrees in France prohibit lay barbers from practicing all surgical procedures except bleeding, cupping, leeching, and extracting teeth.
The Little Medicinal Book for All Kinds of Diseases and Infirmities of the Teeth (Artzney Buchlein), the first book devoted entirely to dentistry, is published in Germany. Written for barbers and surgeons who treat the mouth, it covers practical topics such as oral hygiene, tooth extraction, drilling teeth, and placement of gold fillings.
In France Ambrose Pare, known as the Father of Surgery, publishes his Complete Works. This includes practical information about dentistry such as tooth extraction and the treatment of tooth decay and jaw fractures.
The Development of a Profession - 18th Century
Pierre Fauchard, a French surgeon publishes The Surgeon Dentist, A Treatise on Teeth (Le Chirurgien Dentiste). Fauchard is credited as being the Father of Modern Dentistry because his book was the first to describe a comprehensive system for the practice of dentistry including basic oral anatomy and function, operative and restorative techniques, and denture construction.
Claude Mouton describes a gold crown and post to be retained in the root canal. He also recommends white enameling for gold crowns for a more esthetic appearance.
John Baker, the earliest medically-trained dentist to practice in America, immigrates from England and sets up practice.
Isaac Greenwood practices as the first native-born American dentist.
Paul Revere places advertisements in a Boston newspaper offering his services as a dentist. In 1776, in the first known case of post-mortem dental forensics, Revere verifies the death of his friend, Dr. Joseph Warren in the Battle of Breed’s Hill, when he identifies the bridge that he constructed for Warren.
Frenchman Nicolas Dubois de Chemant receives the first patent for porcelain teeth.

John Greenwood, son of Isaac Greenwood and one of George Washington’s dentists, constructs the first known dental foot engine. He adapts his mother’s foot treadle spinning wheel to rotate a drill.

Josiah Flagg, a prominent American dentist, constructs the first chair made specifically for dental patients. To a wooden Windsor chair, Flagg attaches an adjustable headrest, plus an arm extension to hold instruments.

Advances in Science and Education - 19th Century
Richard C. Skinner writes the Treatise on the Human Teeth, the first dental book published in America.
Samuel Stockton begins commercial manufacture of porcelain teeth. His S.S. White Dental Manufacturing Company establishes and dominates the dental supply market throughout the 19th century.
James Snell invents the first reclining dental chair.
The Crawcours (two brothers from France) introduce amalgam filling material in the United States under the name Royal Mineral Succedaneum. The brothers are charlatans whose unscrupulous methods spark the “amalgam wars,” a bitter controversy within the dental profession over the use of amalgam fillings.
The American Journal of Dental Science, the world’s first dental journal, begins publication. Charles Goodyear invents the vulcanization process for hardening rubber. The resulting Vulcanite, an inexpensive material easily molded to the mouth, makes a excellent base for false teeth, and is soon adopted for use by dentists. In 1864 the molding process for vulcanite dentures is patented, but the dental profession fights the onerous licensing fees for the next twenty-five years.

Horace Hayden and Chapin Harris found the world’s first dental school, the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery, and establish the Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) degree. (The school merges with the University of Maryland in 1923).

The American Society of Dental Surgeons, the world’s first national dental organization, is founded. (The organization dissolves in 1856.)

Alabama enacts the first dental practice act, regulating dentistry in the United States. The act called for the assignment of a dentist to the state’s medical board in order to grant licenses for practicing dentistry in the state, however, the act was never enforced, few dentists are ever assigned a seat on the medical board and only a couple of dental licenses are ever granted during the forty years it was on the books.
Dentist William Morton conducts the first successful public demonstration of the use of ether anesthesia for surgery. The previous year Horace Wells, also a dentist, had conducted a similar demonstration that was regarded a failure when the patient cried out. Crawford Long, a physician, later claims he used ether as an anesthetic in an operation as early as 1842, but he did not publish his work.
Robert Arthur originates the cohesive gold foil method allowing dentists to insert gold into a cavity with minimal pressure. The foil is fabricated by annealing, a process of passing gold through a flame making it soft and malleable.
Twenty-six dentists meet in Niagara Falls, New York, and form the American Dental Association.
Sanford C. Barnum develops the rubber dam, a piece of elastic rubber fitted over a tooth by means of weights. This simple device isolates the tooth from the oral cavity, a troublesome problem for dentists.
Lucy Beaman Hobbs graduates from the Ohio College of Dental Surgery, becoming the first woman to earn a dental degree.
The Harvard University Dental School, the first university-affiliated dental institution, is founded. The school calls its degree the Dentariae Medicinae Doctorae (DMD), creating a continuing semantic controversy (DDS vs. DMD).
Dr. Robert Tanner Freeman, graduating from Harvard University Dental School, becomes the first African-American to earn a dental degree.

James B. Morrison patents the first commercially manufactured foot-treadle dental engine. Morrison’s inexpensive, mechanized tool supplies dental burs with enough speed to cut enamel and dentin smoothly and quickly, revolutionizing the practice of dentistry.

The American George F. Green receives a patent for the first electric dental engine, a self-contained motor and handpiece.

The Wilkerson chair, the first pump-type hydraulic dental chair, is introduced.
The collapsible metal tube revolutionizes toothpaste manufacturing and marketing. Dentifrice had been available only in liquid or powder form, usually made by individual dentists, and sold in bottles, porcelain pots, or paper boxes. Tube toothpaste, in contrast, is mass-produced in factories, mass-marketed, and sold nation-wide. In twenty years, it becomes the norm.
The National Association of Dental Examiners is founded by the members of the dental boards of several states in order to establish uniform standards in the qualifications for dental practitioners, the administration of dental boards overseeing licensing and the legislation of dental practice acts.
The first female dental assistant is employed by C. Edmond Kells, a prominent New Orleans dentist. Her duties include chair-side assistance, instrument cleaning, inventory, appointments, bookkeeping, and reception. Soon “Lady in Attendance” signs are routinely seen in the windows of 19th century dental offices. The American Dental Assistants Association is founded in 1924 by Juliette Southard and her female colleagues.
Stowe & Eddy Dental Laboratory, the first successful industrial-type laboratory in the U.S., opens in Boston, marking the ascendancy of the modern commercial dental laboratory. The earliest known dental laboratory in the U.S. was Sutton & Raynor which opened in New York City around 1854.

Ida Gray, the first African-American woman to earn a dental degree, graduates from the University of Michigan School of Dentistry.

Willoughby Miller an American dentist in Germany, notes the microbial basis of dental decay in his book Micro-Organisms of the Human Mouth. This generates an unprecedented interest in oral hygiene and starts a world-wide movement to promote regular toothbrushing and flossing.

Wilhelm Roentgen, a German physicist, discovers the x-ray. In 1896 prominent New Orleans dentist C. Edmond Kells takes the first dental x-ray of a living person in the U.S.
Edward Hartley Angle classifies the various forms of malocclusion. Credited with making orthodontics into a dental specialty, Angle also establishes the first school of orthodontics (Angle School of Orthodontia in St. Louis, 1900), the first orthodontic society (American Society of Orthodontia, 1901), and the first dental specialty journal (American Orthodontist, 1907)
Innovations in Techniques and Technology - The 20th Century
Charles Land devises the porcelain jacket crown.
Alfred Einhorn, a German chemist, formulates the local anesthetic procaine, later marketed under the trade name Novocain.
William Taggart invents a “lost wax” casting machine, allowing dentists to make precision cast fillings.
Greene Vardiman Black, the leading reformer and educator of American dentistry, publishes his monumental two-volume treatise Operative Dentistry, which remains the essential clinical dental text for fifty years. Black later develops techniques for filling teeth, standardizes operative procedures and instrumentation, develops an improved amalgam, and pioneers the use of visual aids for teaching dentistry.
The first formal training program for dental nurses is established at the Ohio College of Dental Surgery by Cyrus M. Wright. The program is discontinued in 1914 mainly due to opposition by Ohio dentists.
The U.S. Army Dental Corps is established as the first armed services dental corps in the U.S. The Navy institutes its Dental Corps in 1912.
Alfred C. Fones opens the Fones Clinic For Dental Hygienists in Bridgeport, Connecticut, the world’s first oral hygiene school. Most of the twenty-seven women graduates of the first class are employed by the Bridgeport Board of Education to clean the teeth of school children. The greatly reduced incidence of caries among these children gives impetus to the dental hygienist movement. Dr. Fones, first to use the term “dental hygienist,” becomes known as the Father of Dental Hygiene.
Irene Newman receives the world’s first dental hygiene license in Connecticut.
The American Board of Orthodontics, the world’s first dental specialty board, is founded.
Alvin Strock inserts the first Vitallium dental screw implant. Vitallium, the first successful biocompatible implant metal, had been developed a year earlier by Charles Venable, an orthopedic surgeon.
The nylon toothbrush, the first made with synthetic bristles, appears on the market.
The water fluoridation era begins when the cities of Newburgh, New York, and Grand Rapids, Michigan, add sodium fluoride to their public water systems.
President Harry S. Truman signs the Congressional bill formally establishing the National Institute of Dental Research and initiating federal funding for dental research. Dr. H. Trendley Dean is appointed its first director. The Institute is renamed the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research in 1998.
Oskar Hagger, a Swiss chemist, develops the first system of bonding acrylic resin to dentin.
The first fluoride toothpastes are marketed.
Michael Buonocore describes the acid etch technique, a simple method of increasing the adhesion of acrylic fillings to enamel.
John Borden introduces a high-speed air-driven contra-angle handpiece. The Airotor obtains speeds up to 300,000 rotations per minute and is an immediate commercial success, launching a new era of high-speed dentistry.
A fully reclining dental chair is introduced.

Sit down, four-handed dentistry becomes popular in the U.S. This technique improves productivity and shortens treatment time.

Lasers are developed and approved for soft tissue work, such as treatment of periodontal disease.

The first commercial electric toothbrush, developed in Switzerland after World War II, is introduced in the United States. A cordless, rechargeable model follows in 1961.

Rafael Bowen develops Bis-GMA, the thermoset resin complex used in most modern composite resin restorative materials.
Per-Ingvar Branemark describes techniques for the osseointegration of dental implants.
The first commercial home tooth bleaching product is marketed.
New tooth-colored restorative materials plus increased usage of bleaching, veneers, and implants inaugurate an era of esthetic dentistry.
FDA approves the erbium YAG laser, the first for use on dentin, to treat tooth decay.
The National Institute of Dental Research is renamed National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research to more accurately reflect the broad research base that it has come to support.

FAQs on the History of Dentistry

Who was the first African American to receive a dental degree?

The first African-American to receive a dental degree is Dr. Robert Tanner Freeman. He was in the first class to graduate from the Harvard Dental School in 1869. Dr. Ida Gray Nelson Rollins (born Ida Gray) was the first black woman to receive a dental degree. She graduated from the University of Michigan Dental School in 1890.

Who was the first women dentist in America?

This distinction is often given to Emeline Roberts Jones who is known to have assisted in her husband’s dental practice in Connecticut as early as 1844. She became his partner in 1859 and took over the practice upon his death. Sometimes the distinction is given to Lucy Hobbs Taylor who was the first woman in the world to graduate from a dental school and receive a dental degree. She graduated from the Ohio College of Dental Surgery in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1866 and was granted a D.D.S. degree. At the time she received her diploma it is known that she had already been practicing dentistry for at least 5 years having learned the trade as an apprentice from Dr. Samuel Wardle, a Cincinnati dentist.

When was the toothbrush invented?

We know that people have cleaned their teeth with some type of tool since ancient times. In ancient times a frayed end of a stick was generally employed to clean the teeth. The earliest known mention in written history of a toothbrush as we know it, i.e. a long narrow handle with bristles standing at right angles on one end, is in a 17th century Chinese encyclopedia which shows a drawing of the toothbrush and states it was invented in China in 1498. In Europe the earliest records of toothbrushes date to the 17th century.

When was toothpaste invented?

There is no one person or time associated with the invention of the toothpaste. The earliest known text on medicine, the so called Ebers Papyrus which is an Egyptian text dating to 4,000BC, includes recipes for toothpastes as does the work of Hippocrates which dates to the 4th-5th century. Before the availability of mass-produced toothpaste at about the middle of the 19th century, a dentist would provide patients with their own dentifrice mixtures in bottles and pots. Many dentists used their own formulae for these mixtures and the dentifrice of the period did not resemble the creamy toothpaste of today generally being either a liquid or more pasty concoction. Before the introduction of the collapsible metal tube, toothpaste and other sundries and cosmetics were sold in ceramic pots. The toothbrush was dipped into the pot to pick up the paste. Although he did not invent the flexible, collapsible metal tube, Dr. Washington Wentworth Sheffield, a dentist of New London, Connecticut is credited as being the first in the United States to popularize toothpaste in such a tube. His toothpaste Sheffield’s Creme Dentifrice packaged in the tubes was a big seller of its time (c. 1890-1900). The tube quickly caught on and soon became the customary package for toothpaste.

What was the name of the first dental school?

The Baltimore College of Dental Surgery became the world's first dental school when it opened in Baltimore, MD in 1840. It was the first school established to teach courses exclusively in dentistry for the purpose of granting degrees in the profession. The school merged with the University of Maryland’s already established dental school (founded in 1883) in 1923.

Was Paul Revere a dentist?

It is well known that Paul Revere practiced dentistry for a short time. According to advertisements which he placed in a Boston newspaper, he constructed and sold dentures as well as cleaned teeth. Dentures of the era were all hand-made using a variety of materials like metal (including gold, silver and iron), animal and human teeth, ivory, porcelain, etc. Since Paul Revere was a silver smith and thus a craftsman, denture manufacturing was perhaps a natural sideline for him. Paul Revere is also believed to be the first person to identify a body by means of the teeth. The person who was identified was Major General Joseph Warren who was killed during the Battle of Breed’s Hill (also known as the Battle of Bunker Hill) in the Revolutionary War that took place on June 16, 1775. General Warren was killed during the battle by a gunshot wound to the head. The British defeated the Colonials and stripped all the bodies and buried them in a mass grave at the site after the battle. Ten months later Warren’s family instigated a search for his body and dug up the mass grave. Since the body had been stripped of its uniform there was no other way to positively identify the General’s body. Paul Revere was called upon to assist in the identification because he and General Warren (who was a physician in civilian life) had been good friends and sometime prior to the battle Revere had made a silver wire bridge for him. Since all denture making was done by hand, dentures tended to be very distinctive looking and easily recognizable by their makers. Revere was able to recognize his handiwork and thus a positive identification of the body was made.

Did George Washington really wear dentures?

It is well known via surviving letters and diaries that our first president was plagued by bad teeth his whole life. By the time he died it is believe that he only had one natural tooth left in his mouth. You can view his surviving dentures at his home at Mt Rushmore and the National Museum of Dentistry, Baltimore, MD. The dentures (primitive by today’s standards) that were available to him gave him many problems and he had more than one set made during his lifetime. They were constructed with a variety of materials including lead, gold, porcelain, and animal teeth. Contrary to popular belief none of his dentures were made of wood.

What was the name of the first book on dentistry?

The world’s first printed book devoted exclusively to dentistry is Artzney Buchlein: wider allerlei kranckeyten und gebrechen der tzeen which was published in Germany in 1530. A translation of the book’s title from the German is “Booklet of Remedies Against All Sorts of Diseases and Infirmities of the Teeth.” It is also known as Zene Artzney , or Teeth Remedies, the title under which some of its fifteen subsequent editions were published from 1530 to1576. The book is also noteworthy for its title page which bears the first known printed illustration showing a tooth extraction. The large number of editions of this book is indicative of the need for a helpful text on the subject at the time. Written for the lay public, it provided selected practical information culled from the works of other authors on the topic together in one small booklet and included information on the development of the teeth, causes of decay, remedies for toothache, filling methods and teeth care. The first book on dentistry published in America is A Treatise on the Human Teeth by Richard Skinner which was published in New York in 1801. The book was intended for use by the lay public and is actually an advertisement for the author’s services. The list of fees that he published in the book gives insight on how a Colonial dentist practiced. Among the services he offered was tooth transplanting, setting human teeth on silver and gold, fixing artificial teeth, filling cavities, teeth extraction, and eradicating tartar and teeth cleaning. Besides practicing dentistry the book also advertises his services for setting artificial eyes, nose, ears and limbs. It was common for dentists of this era to provide other kinds of services as a way to make ends meet.