A Brief History of Orthodontics

Results from a recent survey conducted by the online dating service Match.com reveal that, upon meeting, the first things people notice about one another are grammar and teeth. While we don’t know how much grammar was a factor to the dating habits of the ancient Egyptians, we can infer that straight teeth were important, as archaeologists have unearthed mummies that are wearing primitive “braces.”

The early Greeks appear to have at least discussed tooth realignment, and the Etruscans and early Romans of what it today Italy appear to have used devices of various sorts in the effort. In the 18th century, at least two dental practitioners – both French – published short writings on tooth straightening.

The apparent dearth of tooth straightening techniques may be due to the fact that, up until relatively recently, tooth loss was so common. (Remember George Washington and his infamous wooden dentures.)

Finally, by the mid-19th century, something like what we today would recognize as rudimentary braces appeared and medical literature appeared that included the term “orthodontia” for the first time. Progress was still rather slow, however, and the first school of orthodontics was not founded until 1901.

The 20th century saw the emphasis shift from merely straightening teeth to treating malocclusion (imperfect positioning of the teeth when the jaw is closed) and utilizing tooth extraction in addition to appliances. These techniques were aided by more refined use of X-ray imaging to better understand bone development in the jaw.

For most of the 20th century, braces were usually made from metals (such as stainless steel) augmented by different forms of rubber. It wasn’t until the 1970s that materials technology advanced and more convenient and comfortable braces were developed, including the first
“invisible” braces. The 21st century has seen the growth of clear aligner removable braces, advanced modeling based on computer imaging and other techniques designed to shorten treatment time and reduce discomfort.