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Dental Prosthetics Through the Ages

Dental laboratory technicians have a long lineage. For centuries, humans have crafted new teeth to replace the old.

Every workday, dental laboratory technicians get to create the bridges, crowns, and other dental prosthetics that serve millions of Americans every year. According to the American Academy of Implant Dentistry, over 35 million Americans are missing teeth in one or both jaws. Filling those gaps is no small task, and DLTs use cutting-edge technology and a steady hand every day to create personalized prosthetics and complete smiles.

However, fixing teeth is nothing new. Humans have been replacing old teeth for millennia; it’s been a long road to the modern dental lab. Future dental lab technicians, discover the treatments dreamed up by generations past that led to where you are today.

Related resource: Dental Laboratory Tools and How to Use Them

Stone Age dentistry

Human beings have had cavities for as long as they’ve had teeth, and that means dentistry has been around since we made the connection between oral pain and tooth decay. Even in ancient times, people were trying to treat cavities, though full dental prosthetics were still a long way off.

A find in northern Italy revealed that humans were treating cavities around 13,000 years ago. Instead of a prosthetic, though, the ancient dentist scraped out the holes and filled them with bitumen, a tarry substance used for making tools. Other ancient evidence suggests cavities were scraped with stone tools, a far cry from today’s dental technology.

Related resource: How to Make a Difference: Dental Laboratory Technician Edition

Gold teeth

Several centuries passed between the dawn of dentistry and early prosthetics, but gold made it’s debut around 2,500 years ago. And dentistry made extensive use of gold for a long time after. Historians disagree on the particulars of diagnosis and treatment, but one find from Egypt in the third millennium B.C. suggests one of the earliest uses of gold wire to hold teeth in place.

Gold may have had certain aesthetic benefits for ancient patients, but its real utility in dentistry is that it’s non-reactive. Gold can interact with water, air, food, and the environment of a person’s mouth without rusting or wearing. Early unambiguous (and rare) examples of prosthetics were fashioned entirely from gold, predating the Roman empire.

Early unambiguous (and rare) examples of prosthetics were fashioned entirely from gold, predating the Roman empire.

An example of gold bridges, adding to the long lineage of gold in dental prosthetics.

Pre-Roman bridges

The Etruscans were a people who lived on the Italian Peninsula prior to the emergence of the Romans. Etruscans crafted some of the oldest known dental prosthetics and appear to have made one of the earliest attempts at dental bridges. Gold and silver bands held together rows of teeth that could be inserted into someone’s mouth, filling a gap.

Etruscan bridges are among the oldest known dental prosthetics.

A replica of an Etruscan dental bridge from 1901 or 1902. Source: Science Museum, London & Wellcome Images

Some Etruscan archaeological evidence suggests that these bridges replaced teeth that had been removed deliberately. That means ancient healthcare providers were diagnosing bad teeth, removing them, and replacing them with crafted prosthetics centuries before the height of the Roman empire. It’s a basic dentistry model that’s not too far off from what happens today.

Millennia later on a different continent, a famous American would craft bridges in a way that would have been familiar to the Etruscans.

Related resource: 6 Lifehacks for Taking Care of Your Teeth

Paul Revere, tooth maker

Paul Revere is best known for his midnight ride, telling his fellow American colonists of an impending invasion by the British military. But, Paul Revere’s other talents included dentistry. Revere was a silversmith by trade, and he occasionally crossed over into making dental prosthetics, usually from ivory.

Along with gold, ivory has historically been a popular material for dental prosthetics.

Paul Revere’s prosthetics could have been similar to these European dentures from the 1800s, made of hippopotamus ivory. Source: Science Museum, London & Wellcome Images

In 1775, Revere was able to identify the body of a friend who’d perished at the Battle of Bunker Hill, Major General Joseph Warren, thanks to a bridge Revere had crafted himself. It’s one of the first examples of the use of dental records and prosthetics to posthumously identify a body.

Related resource: A Day in the Life of a Dental Laboratory Technician

Into the modern era with ceramics

Modern dental prosthetics perform the same functions as the teeth made by ancient artisans or Paul Revere, but they differ in an important way. Modern prosthetics are often made of ceramic, as opposed to real teeth and metal. The development of dental ceramic stretches back to 1889 when Charles H. Land introduced a crown covered in porcelain, referred to as a “jacket.”

An example of a ceramic dental crown on a model jaw.

Ceramic is now the norm for dental prosthetics.

These early ceramic crowns were prone to cracking, but by the 1950s, methods of fusing ceramic to metal had been developed. In the 1980s and 1990s, we see the development of modern crowns and bridges. Today, modern dental prosthetics are held firmly to a patient’s jaw and are often indistinguishable from natural teeth. There’s no glint of gold or the discomfort of a poor fit; prosthetics are simply brand new teeth.

Modern DLTs are still solving a human problem that’s been with us through the ages. Do you want to continue the tradition of crafting prosthetics as a dental lab technician? Take a moment to learn more about Utah’s only accredited dental laboratory technician program, and keep in touch with the Ameritech community on Facebook.

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