When someone is described as having a winning smile, what exactly is it they’re winning? Life, of course! A straight set of pearly whites can be a huge asset, disarming and charming those who see it and opening doors for the bearer. Modern orthodontia has made it possible for people to preserve a straight set of pearly whites even into their advanced years. The practice owes much to Pierre Fauchard, the French scientist who invented braces and is often referred to as the father of modern dentistry.
People’s fascination with teeth stretches back to prehistoric times. Archeologists have unearthed burial mounds with jewelry made of both animal and human teeth at dig sites around the globe. The ancient Egyptians wrapped sinuous fibers around the teeth of mummies in an attempt to preserve their straightness into the afterlife (not unlike modern orthodontic wire often used with braces). Civilizations on the Italian peninsula that pre-date the Romans used gold mouthpieces to maintain the structure and appearance of their teeth after death. And the ancient Chinese used a variety of powders and extracts to maintain the cosmetic appeal of their chompers. It was not until the age of enlightenment that dentistry came out of the dark ages and became a full-fledged scientific discipline.
Pierre Fauchard is almost single-handedly responsible for the advent of modern dentistry. He was born in Saint-Denis-de-Gastines in 1678. As a young man, he left home to join the navy and studied under a naval surgeon and combat medic. After leaving the service, he settled down and studied medicine but was particularly drawn to the mouth after his experience with sailors suffering from tooth and gum ailments, particularly scurvy. At the age of 45, he published a book that was revolutionary in its time. Today, it stands as a nearly unparalleled example of a medical practitioner refusing to take the beliefs of his peers and forging a new path based on relentless experimentation and perspicacious observation.
“Le Chirurgien Dentiste,” or The Surgeon Dentist, set forth a number of ideas that were completely original. For one thing, Fauchard theorized that sugar caused dental cavities. He invented the dental drill and metal fillings. Prior to his practice and study, decayed teeth were simply removed. He was the first to develop a technique of drilling and filling the decayed portion of a tooth while leaving the rest intact. He also invented braces by developing a device known as a “bandeau,” a horseshoe-shaped mouthpiece that helped the teeth grow into a natural and straight arch. On top of that, he correctly theorized that the teeth of adolescents would be easier to move than those of adults because their roots were shallower.
Since then, generation after generation of 13 year-olds curses him (likely without knowing his name), while also growing up to appreciate their straight teeth in adulthood. Pierre Fauchard, the father of modern dentistry, was a man of science of the first order.