The first dentures were made by the Etruscan people living in Etruria (Umbria and Tuscany, Italy), from 700 BCE onwards. Teeth from another person or an animal, such as an ox, were inserted into a band of gold with a metal pin and fitted on to the remaining teeth. Dentures were only an option for the wealthy as they were expensive to make.
Hippopotamus, walrus and elephant ivory were carved into dentures to replace full sets of teeth. Over time, ivory became stained and gave off a foul smell and were uncomfortable to wear. Human teeth were the other option. In the 1700s John Hunter, attempted an experiment to transplant teeth. He placed a human tooth into a comb of a rooster. He saw the tooth become firmly implanted and was convinced that this method would work with humans. Unfortunately he was wrong. However the processes that Hunter followed did lay down sound principles for future transplants. One major source of teeth in the early 1800s was the dead on the battlefields of Europe. So many teeth were removed for this reason following the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 dentures that included human teeth became known as ‘Waterloo teeth’
In the 1840s and 1850s, vulcanite, a hardened rubber, was invented and developed by theGoodyear family. This provided an ideal base for dentures and was cheaper than gold bases, making them more affordable. Vulcanite could be moulded to fit a person’s gums and hardened in the same shape to provide a good fit.
In the United Kingdom, dentures became available to all with the introduction of the NHS. By 1951, demand for dentures was so great, charges were introduced – the first item that had to be paid for on the NHS. Today dentures are made plastic.
Techniques and Technologies:
C Hillam (ed.), The Roots of Dentistry (London: British Dental Association, 1990)
W Hoffmann-Axthelm, History of Dentistry (translated by H M Koehler) (Chicago: Quintessence Publishing Co. Inc, 1981)
E Bennion, Antique Dental Instruments (London: Sotheby’s Publications, 1986)
M E Ring, Dentistry An Illustrated History (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc Publishers, 1985)