Orthodontics might seem like the most modern branch of dentistry, but the “perfect smile” has been a project since Ancient Egypt. Through varied devices and techniques, orthodontics gradually developed to become the sophisticated practice it is in today’s times.
Poorly aligned teeth and jaws have always affected our ability to chew and speak; it isn’t surprising that the history of orthodontics goes back thousands of years:
Archaeologists have found crooked teeth in human remains dating back 50,000 years, according to Norman Wahl in the American Journal of Orthodontics and Dentofacial Orthopedics. In recent times, orthodontists use metal braces to correct misaligned teeth, and something very similar has been found in Egyptian mummies. Many of the mummies had crude metal bands around their teeth, and archaeologists believed catgut may have been tied to these bands to provide pressure to move the teeth.
The Ancient Greeks, the Etruscans and the Romans also practiced orthodontia. David Evans, DDS describes a gold band that was used on Etruscan women to preserve the position of the teeth after death, and the Ancient Greek physician, Hippocrates, wrote the first known description of tooth irregularities around 400 B.C. A Roman writer named Celsus, 400 years later, recommended bringing newly emerging teeth into their proper position by regularly pushing them with your fingers. To correct elongated teeth, another Roman named Pliny the Elder, who lived from 23 to 79 A.D., advised filing them to size.
17th and 18th Centuries
Ultimately, progress in orthodontics stalled after ancient times until the 18th century, which saw a surge in development. Pierre Fauchard, in 1728 was acknowledged as the ‘Father of Modern Dentistry’, having invented an appliance called ‘bandeau’. This horseshoe-shaped strip of metal contained regularly spaced holes that fit around the teeth to correct their alignment. Fauchard would also operate on patients with a set of forceps called a pelican, forcibly realigning teeth and tying them to the neighboring teeth to hold them in place while they healed. He published “LeChirurgienDentistse” which contained all aspects of contemporary dentistry. It was his lead that encouraged the distinguished Surgeon, John Hunter to publish his book, “The natural History of Human Teeth”.
Then, Christophe-François Delabarre (1787-1862) tried separating overcrowded teeth by inserting swelling threads or wooden wedges between each space.
The Birth of Orthodontics in the USA
Significant contributions to the practice of orthodontics in the United States began in the early 19th century, according to Norman Wahl. In 1822, J.S. Gunnell invented the occipital anchorage, a form of headgear that fastens to the jaw from the outside of the mouth to exert gentle pressure on the teeth. Then in 1840, Chapin A. Harris published the first classic book on dentistry, “The Dental Art,” outlining practices such as soldering knobs on bands to assist with tooth rotation, and applying gold caps to molars to open the dental bite. When Charles Goodyear invented vulcanized rubber in 1839, orthodontists realized the new material’s potential. In 1846, E.G. Tucker became the first American dentist to use rubber in orthodontic appliances.
The 20th Century
No history of orthodontics is complete without a mention of Edward Hartley Angle, considered the Father of Modern Orthodontics. A man with a range of achievements listed in the Journal of Advanced Oral Research, he identified the true properties of a malocclusion, or misalignment, and addressed them with an increasingly effective set of orthodontic appliances beginning in 1880.
Prior to the 1970s, orthodontists had anchored brackets to teeth by winding wires around each tooth. But according to Dr. Evans, the invention of dental adhesives meant that they could instead stick the brackets to teeth surfaces. Meanwhile, stainless steel replaced gold and silver as the most popular choice for wires due to its manipulability, reducing braces costs significantly. Lingual braces, which run along teeth’s inside surfaces, were also first introduced in the 1970s to address the aesthetic concerns we still have today. In today’s times, many dental contraptions are available for orthodontic patients besides the traditional meal braces and the lingual (discreet) braces. They are the new rage in teeth straightening that are known as clear braces, aligners or retainers. They are made of a special PETG plastic and shaped in to the shape of your arch and designed to move teeth gradually, to fill spaces or move crowded teeth into perfect alignment.
Wahl, N. (2005). Orthodontics in 3 millennia. Chapter 1: Antiquity to the mid-19th century. American Journal of Orthodontics and Dentofacial Orthopedics, 127(2), 255–259. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ajodo.2004.11.013
A. (2017, August 10). History of Braces: Who Invented Braces? A Boulder Dentist for Your Family | Dr. David Evans DDS. https://www.davidevansdds.com/history-of-braces/
Timmons, G. (2020, July 17). Hippocrates. Biography. https://www.biography.com/scholar/hippocrates
Kaczorowski W. Matthaus Gottfried Purmann (1649-1711) Przyczynek do historii chirurgii [Matthaus Gottfried Purmann (1649-1711). Contribution to the history of surgery]. Med Nowozytna. 1998;5(2):101-7. Polish. PMID: 11625601.
Phillip Pfaff: Tüchtigster deutscher Zahnarzt der 18. Jahrhunderts [Phillip Pfaff: most competent German dentist of the 18th century]. Zahnarztl Mitt. 1985 Jun 16;75(12):1366-7. German. PMID: 3901586.
Paulino, C. C. (2019, November 23). The Evolution of Orthodontics: From Animal Skins to “Barely Noticeable.” Today’s RDH. https://www.todaysrdh.com/the-evolution-of-orthodontics-from-animal-skins-to-barely-noticeable/
Publications | Pierre Fauchard Academy. (n.d.). Pierre Fauchard Academy. https://www.fauchard.org/publications/12-dr-chapin-a-harris
A. (2020, March 17). Charles Goodyear and the Vulcanization of Rubber. Connecticut History | a CTHumanities Project. https://connecticuthistory.org/charles-goodyear-and-the-vulcanization-of-rubber/
D. (2020b, January 23). The Father of Modern Orthodontics: Edward H. Angle. Dentistry-Review.Com. https://dentistry-review.com/dental-history/the-father-of-modern-orthodontics-edward-hartley-angle/
Ps, V. (2010, December 15). Orthodontics in the past millennium. Journal of Advanced Oral Research. https://www.joaor.org/orthodontics-in-the-past-millennium-article.html
A. (2017b, August 10). History of Braces: Who Invented Braces? A Boulder Dentist for Your Family | Dr. David Evans DDS. https://www.davidevansdds.com/history-of-braces/