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History of Orthodontics Part II

In Part I, we followed the long and painful fits and starts of dentistry, beginning with the earliest humans and ending with some mummies in Egypt who were found sporting something resembling braces. In part II, we'll work our way up to the 18th Century, by way of Greece, Rome and Virginia. (We're making great time!)


Egypt's ancient counterparts across the Mediterranean were also working on their smiles. Some of the greatest minds in Greece contemplated cures for various oral ailments, including Aristotle and Hippocrates (the father of western medicine and author of the eponymous Hippocratic Oath). Meanwhile, the Etruscans (the forerunners of the Romans) developed spacers and bridges, but probably only affixed them to the dead as they prepared bodies for the afterlife.

Right before the beginning of the Common Era, a man named Aulus Cornelius Celcus described what may have been the first proper bit of orthodontics (by which I mean, moving the teeth of living people). Celcus documented a process of moving teeth by applying finger pressure at regular intervals, slowly moving them into place. This is what today's braces do, though through vastly superior means (no offense to Mr. Celcus).

Sadly, more than a millennium and a half passed before orthodontics had another real breakthrough. But, in the 1700s, these ancient ideas finally codified into what could fairly be called the dawn of modern orthodontics. But before we get into that, let's clear up some confusion about the composition of a certain first president's dentures.


...lots of things, none of them wood. That's right, George Washington, the paterfamilias of the Founding Fathers, never EVER had wooden teeth. Neither his dentures, nor those of his contemporaries, contained the slightest bit of wood – American dentists didn't make dentures out of wood, though Japanese dentists did.

Washington was a dental disaster long before the battles of Lexington and Concord. There were very few dentists in the colonies, and the practice was in the heyday of its brutal needle-nose-pliers approach to tooth pain. Pictures of Colonial Era dental tools might make us sympathetic to Washington's apprehension, but non-treatment took the same torturous toll then as it does today.

To be fair to the General, gingivitis was not the greatest foe he would face. But there were casualties. By the time he took office, Washington had retained only one of his original teeth, and that lone holdout would not accompany him to the end of his presidency. Of course, the leader of this new nation was expected to speak on behalf of an entire people, not lisp and sputter through rotted gums. So Washington got the finest dentures of his day.

According to the Mount Vernon Museum, which still has a pair of Washington's dentures on display, “Washington's dentures represented the latest advancements in dental technology.” The base was made of lead, and used brass wires and steel springs. Wood is actually a terrible material for teeth; it's weak, soft and needs to be treated with toxic chemicals. Instead, Washington's teeth came from other humans, cows, hippopotamuses and elephant ivory.

This was the best the world had to offer. But these dentures were still entirely uncomfortable. His oral discomfort is perhaps the best explanation for the dour expression we've come to know from his portraits. The face on your dollar bill is also a portrait of the earliest works in modern orthodontics.

In Part III, we'll visit 18th Century France and meet the two men most responsible for the development of modern orthodontics.