eli5: How did dentistry become its own distinct field separate from medicine?


eli5: How did dentistry become its own distinct field separate from medicine?

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In the olden days, Dentistry was seen as a personal service kind of like going to the barber. Dentists pulled bad teeth and replaced them with dentures, and that was about the extent of care that you received from a dentist. The thought went that teeth are just bones, they’re dead tissue (never mind that they have nerves,) so you don’t need a doctor.

In the 1840’s a couple of self-taught dentists went to the University of Maryland to discuss adding dental instruction to the medicine program, and the professors at the University said no. So the dentists started their own school and their own professional licensing scheme.


It didn’t become separate; it was always separate.

Bad in Ye Olde Days, medicine was seen as an important, respectable profession. And dentistry was for butchers and quacks. Actually, sometimes literal butchers. Historically, until the late 19th Century, dentistry consisted primarily of pulling painful and/or rotted teeth. That’s about it. Sometimes cutting them out if they wouldn’t yank out. Oh, and making fake teeth and dentures.

Early doctors in most of the world (Europe, India, Persia, China) eschewed surgery as barbaric. This was often at least partially on religious grounds: cutting into a living human body was often seen as violating the sanctity of the body. But people still needed “surgery” – most notably amputation, removal of cysts and tumors near the skin, and other gross things of that nature. A king of France famously had an anal fistula closed. These surgeons often had day jobs as barbers…which makes no sense until you remember that both need very sharp knives, and sharp knives were expensive back in the day. Such barber-surgeons also often worked as dentists.

People often mark the beginning of modern dentistry with the introduction of fillings in the late 1600s, but dentistry only really became a respectable profession in the mid- to late 1800s, which is also when it fully divorced from surgery.

Surgeons, incidentally, became respectable a little earlier, but note that in many countries, surgeons aren’t considered to be the same as doctors and are often called “Mr.” or “Ms.” instead of “Dr.”


Teeth are largely external, or at least appear to be (we all know there’s a lot of stuff under the hood), so they could fairly easily slip into the same territory as nail care, skin care, and the like.