The History of Orthodontics - Part III

Let’s recap:

Previously on The History of Orthodontics: Humans, a species of clever bipeds hailing from Africa, spent their first million-ish years on the planet suffering from, and thus surely noticing, the fact that some of their teeth were not like the others, but not doing a heck of a lot about it. A few thousand years ago, it began to dawn on a few of them that teeth can gradually be moved into their proper place by applying light, constant pressure. Unfortunately, the only mouths to benefit from this idea were owned by dead people who, naturally, had very little use for a proper bite. (Also, George Washington’s teeth weren’t made of wood.)

That brings us to…


The first two recognizable steps in modern orthodontics came from 18th Century France. Why was France the ideal setting for the birth of orthodontics? It’s hard to give a concrete answer, other than to say France was particularly rich, particularly conscious of aesthetics, and it had to happen somewhere.

But the timing does make sense. The 18th Century was the tail end of the Age of Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution. Wealth and power could be rewarded to people who embraced reason and the scientific method. The printing press flourished in Europe, allowing people in the medical community to share ideas via medical journals. Dentists could finally fund research and explain their findings in books.

One of these books was Pierre Fauchard’s 1721 treatise “The Surgeon Dentist.” Fauchard was a remarkable man and could quite fairly be called the father of modern dentistry. Among the novel ideas Fauchard put forward in his book: Cavities are not caused by invisible “tooth worms” (which, you’ll remember from Part I, was the prevailing theory) and sugar is the more likely culprit; teeth have roots; everybody has two sets of teeth in their lives and teeth do not generate spontaneously; and, most memorably, cavities can be drilled out of teeth and replaced with metal fillings.

But, for our purposes, the most important part of “The Surgeon Dentist” was the chapter dedicated to straightening teeth. Most of the chapter focused on Fauchard’s use of a device called the Bandeau, a horseshoe-shaped piece of iron that was inserted into the mouth to expand the arch.

In 1757, Etienne Bourdet published “The Dentist’s Art.” Bourdet was the dentist to the king of France and was greatly inspired by Fauchard’s work. Bourdet saw the great potential of the Bandeau, and his ruminations on ways to perfect it were among the lasting contributions of his book. Another was the idea that overcrowding could be prevented by extracting wisdom teeth, the main cause of tooth misalignment. (We now know this not to be the case.)

Bourdet was actually the dentist to two kings of France, Louis XV and Louis XVI. He died in 1789, the same year the French Revolution began and four years before Louis XVI’s teeth, along with his head, were separated from the rest of his body via guillotine. I think it’s safe to assume that among the many qualities the people of France disliked about Louis XVI, his impressive smile was not one of them.

Next time, we’ll try to answer one of the more contentious issues in the History of Orthodontics: Who’s your daddy?