Fun Facts

The History of Dentistry: A Look at Tooth Worms

By May 20, 2016No Comments

There are many things that we take for granted in this day and age. Advancements in medicine, food, and even dentistry. While visiting the dentist can sometimes be a scary proposition, even if you aren’t getting a cavity drilled, the practices today are nothing compared to what our ancestors went through. For many, a toothache would last their entire life.

Today we’ll take a short look back through history and uncover one of the more interesting legends of the day. The legend of the tooth worm, which stretches as far back as the history of dentistry itself.

toothworm, dentistry

Medieval dentist removing a “tooth worm”

From as early as 5000 B.C. we see some of the first references to Dental practice that has been recorded. In this particular instance, we can look upon an ancient Sumerian reference of “tooth worms” which were believed back then to have bored holes in human teeth, causing tooth decay and extreme pain. References to tooth worms could also be found in ancient Egypt, India, and China.

This was a common legend even as far as the 8th century in Europe, where dentists would often try to smoke out the worms with a mixture of charcoal and beeswax, directing the fumes into a cavity with a funnel. The hole was then sealed with powdered henbane and gum mastic, which likely would have applied at least temporary relief from the pain as henbane was considered a mild narcotic. Usually though, the tooth would have to be removed outright. Many dentists of the times confused the nerves in the tooth with tooth worms, causing a very painful and extremely unnecessary operation removing both the tooth and nerves.

It wasn’t until the 18th century that Pierre Fauchard, widely known as the father of modern dentistry, asserted that tooth decay was directly linked to the consumption of sugar and not tooth worms. The theory of the tooth worm began to lose credibility in the practice of dentistry. In the 1890’s, W.D. Miller (considered the first oral microbiologist), discovered that bacteria living inside the mouth produced acids. These acids dissolve tooth enamel which leads to tooth decay when in the presence of fermentable carbohydrates (sugar). Yet, even with all of this evidence, the legend of the tooth worm would perpetuate even into the 20th century.


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