Five Crazy Dental Inventions From Throughout History

dental toolsWe modern dentists don’t have the best reputation. Many patients fear going to the dentist because they think the treatment they receive is going to be painful or traumatic. Most of the time this isn’t the case, but many patients don’t realize that modern dentistry has advanced to the point where they’re pretty lucky. With modern innovations such as anesthesia and electric tools, today’s patients are spared from these comparatively primitive and much more frightening dental inventions from human history:

1. The Bow Drill (c. 5000 BC)

Early evidence of the bow drill comes to archaeologists from 7,000 year old societies in India and Pakistan. Though it might look comparatively harmless to some of the other inventions in this list, you can be sure the procedure was anything but. If you’ve ever been camping and started a fire with a bow and a stick the same premise applies here. Instead though, you’re using this to drill teeth, and let me tell you this would’ve been a long and arduous process without the advent of electric machinery and machine-sharpened drills.

2. Dental Mouth Gag (c.1500s)

Has your dentist ever had to continuously remind you to open your mouth during a cleaning? Well, 16th century dentists apparently didn’t have the same patience as modern day ones. This dental mouth gag would have been used to keep patients from closing their mouths during dental procedures. Keep in mind, you’d have your mouth pried open for the whole procedure and still would have other primitive and creepy instruments poking and prodding at your teeth.

3. Tooth Transplants (c.1700s)

How would you like to have your unhealthy teeth replaced by someone else’s? Sounds pleasant, doesn’t it? Well, while not the most common of dental practices, some dentists, such as John Hunter, who lived in England, would offer people money for their healthy teeth, and would transplant them into the mouths of his patients. Since there’s no scientific way to “plant” a tooth in someone’s mouth, Hunter would tie the teeth to neighboring teeth so they would stay in place. This practice was usually pretty unsuccessful though, as the transplanted teeth would fall out within a few months.

4. The Dental Key (c.1810s)

The dental key and its older cousin the dental pelican were tools used for the process of extracting teeth in the 19th century. Named because of its resemblance to contemporary keys, the dental key functioned by placing a tooth between the shaft of the key and one of the key’s “teeth” followed by quickly turning it in order to remove a tooth. More often than not though, the dental key only manage to chip away pieces of the tooth leaving the root still intact.

5. The Wilcox-Jewett Obtunder (1905)

This torturous looking device was ironically used to relieve pain back in its heyday. Using a syringe on the end, the “Obtunder” was used to inject anesthetics of the time (usually cocaine) directly into the gums of patients. Patients would’ve had to sit still for a marginal amount of time while the device did its job, and it probably wasn’t painless either. And you were afraid of needles!


Dr. Robert D’Alfonso is the owner and dentist at Lakeway Center for Cosmetic & Family Dentistry. He lives in Lakeway, Texas with his wife, Allison, and son, Joseph—who he is very glad will not grow up in a world with these dental inventions!

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