How Our Ancestors Conducted Dental Surgery

Modern dentistry is evolving rapidly with new technology, new treatments and innovative ideas about the future appearing day by day; however, if you go back through the ages, you may be surprised just how far we have come, from the days when blacksmiths and barbers would double up as dentists.

DentistThe practice of dentistry dates back thousands of years, with records of the Ancient Egyptians writing about tooth decay and the oldest filling found by archaeologists dating back more than 6,500 years. Hippocrates and Aristotle both wrote about the treatment of common dental ailments and discoveries from Ancient Egypt and Greece suggest that early versions of restorations were used and surgical methods practised to treat dental issues. Surgical equipment was more akin to tools, and restorative materials were used from natural substances, such as beeswax.

Sumerians, an ancient culture from the historical Mesopotamia region, believed a ‘Tooth Worm’ was responsible for tooth cavities. The idea later spread to Asia, and then Europe as late as the 14th Century.

Dentist registration and early dental surgery

It was only 150 years ago that the first dentist was officially registered; Sir John Tomes was the first official dentist and is regarded as a pioneer in his field. Sir Tomes had a wide range of interests including the anatomy and biology of the teeth and the development of dental equipment and is credited with making major advances in dentistry at the time.

Before Sir John Tomes’ time, dental treatment was a rather bleak and brutal experience for dental patients. Forceps or keys, which were shaped like a common door key, and placed around the tooth, were used for extractions, but the procedure was primitive and many patients suffered damaged gums and jaws following extraction, as well as excessive bleeding. Anaesthetic was not used and patients simply had to grin and bear the pain; for many people, going to the dentist was an agonising and unforgettable experience.


One of the most significant developments in dental surgery came with the discovery of anaesthetic; however, even as recently as the 1960s dentists were using very different methods to anaesthetise their patients. Professor Derrick Wilmott, the dean of faculty at the Royal College of Surgeons, said that he remembers anaesthetising patients while they were still sat up in the 1960s.

Modern dentistry

In the last decade, dentistry has advanced at lightning speed thanks to developments in technology and advances in scientific research. The range of treatments is expanding all the time and there are now many services available to dental patients, from general and preventative dentistry, to cosmetic dentistry, orthodontic treatments and even facial aesthetics, a field in which many modern dentists have additional training. Treatments are faster-acting and more successful thanks to research and sophisticated technology, processes are much shorter and the risks associated with dental procedures are much lower.

In recent years, laser dentistry and digital technology have revolutionised dentistry and the future looks much brighter for those that dread the dentist’s chair.

Richard Buckley