False teeth and dentures: A history

antique false teeth or denture

False teeth and dentures: A History

False teeth- alternatively known as dentures- are a prosthetic device designed to replace missing teeth. There are two main categories of dentures: complete dentures and partial dentures. They can be made for either the upper ‘maxillary’ or lower ‘mandibular’ dental arches. 

Historically, false teeth have been around for quite some time. Some have been discovered in what is today’s Mexico dating back to around 2500BC. They are thought to be made from wolf’s teeth.

Ancient Egyptian dentistry

Egyptians were very knowledgeable about the human body. Because blood was drained and the internal organs removed for mummification, they developed a better understanding of the human body. The Egyptian doctors wrote manuals on many medical procedures. We find evidence of some of the earliest dental procedures to be carried out in one of these manuals, dated to between 3000 and 2500BC. These usually involved the extraction of teeth or drilling of cavities.

Ancient Etruscan dentistry

The Etruscan people of Italy were incredibly intelligent and luxury was of great importance to them. They used their knowledge of dentistry, which they had gained from trade and travel across the seas. Around 700BC, they were using gold wire and bands to attach human and animal teeth. The gold bands were wrapped around the teeth and cemented by soldering with heat; although this is more like a cross between a dental bridge and a denture.

Ancient Greek Dentistry

Archaeologists have learned a lot from the mummified remains of a Greek man who lived about 2100 years ago. He had severe dental problems and a life of painful cavities and as a result, died from a sinus infection. Greek dentists struggled to cure the man. In order to prevent food from entering the cavity and festering, linen soaked in medicine was used to plug the tooth. Greeks were not fond of extractions and would often suffer the pain as it was preferable to losing the tooth.

Ancient Mayan Dentistry

Many think that dental implants are the cutting edge of modern dentistry; however, the Mayan civilization used them first. Around 600 A.D., they would put pieces of bone, seashells, and even carved rocks in a tooth socket. The jaw bone would grow around these materials, just like it does for dental implants today

Waterloo False Teeth

In 1815, the Battle of Waterloo left over 50,000 dead soldiers. Afterwards, the people of Belgium collected the teeth from the casulties, which numbered over 1.6million and sold them to England; shipping them over in barrels.

It actually became popular to have “Waterloo Teeth” to replace missing ones. 

George Washington’s false teeth

George Washington suffered from poor dental health throughout his adulthood. Beginning in his twenties he experienced regular toothaches, decay, and tooth loss. It is likely that due not only to genetics, but also factors common during Washington’s era, including a poorly balanced diet and disease, contributed to his dental problems. As a result, he spent his life in frequent pain. He used a variety of tooth cleaners, dental medicines, and dentures.

Prior to Washington’s service in the Revolutionary War, Dr John Baker fabricated a partial denture with ivory. This was wired to Washington’s remaining real teeth.

In the 1780s, Washington employed the services of Jean-Pierre Le Mayeur, a French dentist living in America. However, it is unclear precisely what dental services Le Mayeur performed.

Despite some claims, Washington’s false teeth were not made of wood!

False teeth in the industrial era

Alexis Duchâteau made the first porcelain dentures in 1770. Before that he wore dentures made from hippopotamus. Unfortunately, they began to rot, so he tried to make something more durable. His first tries were unsuccessful. However when he teamed up with Nicholas Dubois De Chemant, a dentist, they managed to make a pair that Duchâteau could wear. They looked nice but unfortunately they chipped easily. Nicholas Dubois De Chemant improved porcelain for dentures, making it stronger. He had the first British patent for porcelain dentures in 1791. Progress was further made in 1820, Samuel Stockton, a goldsmith made improved porcelain dentures mounted on 18-carat gold plates.

In the 1850s, Vulcanite, a type of hardened rubber and porcelain teeth were used to make dentures. Vulcanite was cheap and this allowed dentures to became available to the wider population. Unfortunately, there was a problem with the copyright under which Vulcanite was manufactured.

An alternative was sought and found in aluminium whose popularity lasted until copyright on Vulcanite expired and it became standard denture base material. 

In 1868, Hyatt invented Celluloid. From 1890 celluloid was as a denture base material. Because it used camphor as the plasticiser, it had an unpleasant odour. It also didn’t hold shape for long. However, this marked the beginning of plastics as materials for dentures. In 1909 Leo Baekeland developed Bakelite and in 1924, made its first appearance in dentistry.

In the 1940s, when improved resins were introduced, the use of Vulcanite fell out of fashion.

Modern Dentures

From 1938 polymethylmethacrylate (PMMA or acrylic resin) became the prevailing material for denture bases. It is inexpensive, hard, translucent, inert and is easy to repair. In addition, acrylic has no unpleasant odour or toxicity. Because of these characteristics, it is still used today

In 2018, The Wellcome Collection had an exhibition on the history of false teeth. Visit their false teeth online catalogue.

Alternatively, if you would like to know more about the dentures and materials that are currently on the market, and how Care Denture can create the perfect smile for you, please visit our website.