The History of Orthodontics - Part VI

Whether you want or need braces, had braces in the past, or are looking to get braces for your child, it will amaze you how much braces have advanced in the last hundred years. Today’s braces are light-years more affordable, comfortable, effective, efficient, and aesthetically pleasing than braces of the past. Today’s braces aren’t just the best, our braces are a breeze.

You see, the great thing about history is that it helps us understand the world we live in today and, in doing so, let us reflect on how far we’ve come and how good we have it.

Blaise Pascal famously wrote, “Cleopatra’s nose, had it been shorter, the whole face of the world would have been changed.” (In her day, long, aquiline noses were considered the most beautiful.) Pascal never wrote anything about Cleopatra’s teeth, but they probably weren’t as nice as yours. I hate to burst your bubble, but Cleopatra, along with every other famous historical person, probably had much more crooked teeth than Hollywood would have us believe.

That’s because, even though Egyptian mummies have been found with metal bands wrapped around their teeth (as you may remember from Part I), a human couldn’t find an orthodontist and get a real set of braces until about 100 years ago.

For the majority of the last century, orthodontists used metals to make loops, hooks, ligatures and spurs to make braces. A large metal band was wrapped around each individual tooth, covering most of the tooth. Before they switched to stainless steel in the 1950s, most orthodontists preferred using gold because of its malleability. But, lest you start pining for the bling of yesteryear, gold had two big drawbacks: 1) Because it’s soft, it needed to be readjusted quite frequently; and 2) gold was even more expensive then than it is today.

It wasn’t until the mid-‘70s, when Woody Hayes was busy leading my Buckeyes to Big Ten Championships here in Columbus, orthodontists’ braces could finally be attached to the front of the teeth with brackets.

Not having a metal band wrapped around each tooth was huge step forward. At long last, people could get their teeth straightened and their smiles perfected without fairly being called a “metal mouth.” But the new brackets, though small in comparison to their predecessor, were still stainless steel and thus still, well… visible.

So the task was set: How and where can we find invisible braces? Interestingly enough, in 1975, the next innovation was developed independently by two orthodontists living half a world apart, one in the U.S. and the other in Japan.

Their great invention? Lingual braces, which attach to the teeth on the inside of the mouth. Lingual braces didn’t catch on immediately, but advancements in digital imaging have made them much more comfortable and they are now in widespread use.

The next advancement in the quest for invisible braces came in the 1980s. Ceramic braces, with brackets made from a mix of ceramic and metal, were as strong as their metal counterpart, but less noticeable. While we now offer a variety of colored braces, tooth-colored braces are the most popular.

Will we ever find invisible braces, that Holy Grail of Orthodontia? Find out next time in the final installment of The History of Orthodontics.