The desire for straight teeth is not new among humans. We have been concerned with the appearance of our teeth for at least the last 3,000 years! Archeologists have accumulated evidence from preserved corpses and mummies that ancient peoples tried to band and restrict the teeth, presumably in an effort to straighten teeth. While the pursuit is not new, the approach has changed a bit over the past few millennia. We briefly discuss the history of braces and orthodontics.
Braces in ancient times
Even 50,000 year old Neanderthal man had crooked teeth. Despite millennia of crooked smiles, the earliest evidence that we have of people trying to straighten teeth is from about 1,000 BC (Weinberger). Egyptians, Greeks, and Etruscans tried to wrap metal bands around the teeth to pull or push them into more pleasing positions. While many of the early designs are impressive, we cannot know for sure how effective they were. What we do not is that early man knew that teeth could be made to change their alignment by carefully adding pressure over time. This is the same concept has been used in the three thousand year history of braces.
More success for ancient Greeks and Romans
The prosperous and successful old cultures of Greece and Rome certainly do get a lot of credit for advances in art, science, and philosophy. They also deserve admiration for their contribution to the history of braces. Hippocrates described irregular teeth among his many medical writings. Later, around the time of Jesus Christ, Roman writers (specifically Celsus) advocated pulling out a primary (baby) tooth to accommodate the arrival of the permanent tooth. In fact, Celsus suggested that the new tooth be pressed on with the fingers each day to ensure the proper alignment. Pliny the Elder suggested that, instead of pushing or pulling teeth, that long teeth should be filed to match them to surrounding teeth. While this is not a primary way to straighten teeth today, it was commonly used for about 1,900 years.
…and then the Middle Ages happened
As with so many other discoveries and advancements achieved by early man, the thousand years between the fifth and fifteenth centuries (also called the Dark Ages) saw no progress in orthodontics. Braces of any kind, if applied, used ancient technology.
The recent and modern age of orthodontics
By drawing on ancient concepts and applying innovations of the day, modern dentistry evolved rapidly over the past 400 years. Thoughtful men specialized in dentistry and made attempts to change the alignment of the teeth through various approaches. Around 1,700, early “operators for the teeth” made wax or plaster of Paris impressions of the mouth for documenting arrangement of the teeth.
The French innovate braces
By the 18th century, France emerged as the premier country for all fields of dentistry, including the burgeoning field of orthodontics. Pierre Fauchard, credited by many as the “Father of Orthodontia,” developed a “bandeau” for teeth. This bandeau was made of a strip of precious metal to which each tooth was tightly bound with ties (like strings). Another Frenchman named Etienne Bourdet suggested removing any teeth that were crowding the others inappropriately. Bourdet is also known for placing the arch of the bandeau on the back side (lingual side) of the teeth, instead of the front.
British and American influences
Norman W. Kingsley and Edward H. Angle are notable names in early orthodontics. They pioneered concepts of malocclusion and bad bites as the scientific basis for braces and other orthodontic treatments. They (and others of the same time period) pioneered and established subtler and more effective ways to move the teeth through constant pressure and intermittent adjustments. The foundation of braces and orthodontics was laid from antiquity to the mid-1800s. However modern braces evolved very rapidly over the last two centuries.
Wahl N. Orthodontics in 3 millennia. Chapter 1: Antiquity to the mid-19th century. Am J Orthod Dentofacial Orthop 2005;127:255-259.
Weinberger BW. Historical résumé of the evolution and growth of orthodontia. J Am Dent Assoc 1934;21:2001-21.