As we approach nearly two and a half centuries of our nation’s independence, you might be
wondering (if you’re anything like us), “What did dentistry look like back in 1776?”.
Prior to 1800, American dentistry was merely a combination of French and British dentistry. In
fact, there were few texts on dentistry in the colonies, apart from the occasional foreign work
circulating its way around the nation. At this time, American dentistry didn’t make any
considerable contributions to the practice.
Before the introduction of institutional dentistry education, little was recorded at all. Rather,
there was immense competition amongst those who practiced the trade, leading to trade
secrets and careful guarding of knowledge.
Furthermore, there were few laws governing the practice of medicine, let alone dentistry. This
meant that people of all backgrounds and skill levels, physicians, low-level surgeons or even
craftsman performed dental services.
Flash forward to 1819, and we see the first call for the formalized education of dentistry. In his
book, Practical Guide to the Management of the Teeth, L.S. Parmly writes:
“In examining the progress of the improvements in the different branches, it is to be observed with
regret that the Dental Art has not kept pace with many others of less real utility. One cause of this
slow progress of dental science is that the subject has not hitherto been considered as forming
an essential part of professional education. Hence, the practice of it has generally been
considered in no higher light than a mechanical occupation or trade. A great improvement of this
department of surgery will depend on pointing out to society the importance of preventing
diseases of the teeth; as well as their connection, in almost every instance, with the general state
of the health and preservation of the system.”
This trend continued for some years before The University of Maryland initiated the first
experimental course offering in dental instruction. This lasted from 1823-1825, where a
respected dentist, Horace H. Hayden, gave lectures on dental science. This marked the first real
recognition by a medical school that there was a need for dental experts.
Various schools followed in Maryland’s footsteps, attempting here and there to provide formal
dental education. This all culminated to three events that revolutionized dentistry forever.
1. The publication of a journal dedicated entirely to dentistry in June, 1839
2. The first founding of a school for professional dental education in February, 1840
3. The formal organization of a national dental association with its first meeting held
These events secured dentistry’s place on a national platform. For a while, most dental
education was still the specific training of individuals who showed a superior aptitude for
dentistry, but these events established dentistry on an institutional platform, which would
eventually lead us to the modern dentistry we see today.
For more information about how dentistry has evolved in America:
Chernin, David. (2009). The evolution of the American Dentist. Part I–Amalgamation: 1776-1840.
Journal of the history of dentistry. 57. 45-67.