Have you ever wondered who the first dentist was? Who was the person that first decided to help people with their tooth problems?
Well, the first recorded dentist lived around 2650 BC in Egypt, and his name was Hesyre. He was also a physician, his official title being ‘Chief of Dentists and Physicians’. Although healthcare existed in Egypt before that, Hesyre was the first to actually have such a title. In fact, he was so important, that he also held other titles: chief of taxes, priest, and the overseer of the royal scribes.
Because healthcare was relatively new at this time, Hesyre’s medical training is under debate. Experts speculate that he might have been self-taught. Others believe that he was a student at the House of Life, an institution where medical books were composed, and possibly a place where physicians gathered to learn and research.
Ancient Egypt’s Dental Problems
Although there is no exact record of what Hesyre did as a dentist, researchers have been able to narrow down possible dental issues that ancient Egyptians might have suffered from. Their mummification practices resulted in extremely well-preserved remains, revealing issues such as gum disorders and dental abscesses.
The most prominent issue, however, was tooth wear. According to researchers, the Egyptians had a largely fibrous diet, whose abrasive properties would be enhanced by the incorporation of sandy particles present in the desert air and on harvested grains.
This tooth wear would have caused the loss of tooth enamel, causing teeth to become sensitive. Eventually, the wear would have exposed the pulp chamber, causing a bacterial infection that would lead to abscesses.
Interestingly, Egyptians did not usually suffer from tooth decay during Hesyre’s time. Their diet did not include refined sugars until 332 BC when the Greeks invaded and brought in white bread and honey.
So what did the first dentist(s) do?
Out of the thousands of mummified remains, very few actually show surgical intervention to dental problems. Researchers found a couple of skulls with holes drilled in to remove abscesses. However, experts now believe that they were just pathological conditions.
A dental splint from 2500 BC found at Giza is the most famous evidence of dentistry. It wires two molars together through complex knots. However, the molars are not attached to a skeleton, which leads to speculation regarding the splint’s use. Experts believe that the procedure was not done inside the individual’s mouth while he was alive, so it might have been an attempt to make the body whole again for the journey to the afterlife. Alternatively, it was an amulet for protection.
So although dentists in Hesyre’s time might not have performed actual dental surgery, surviving medical manuscripts do outline pharmaceutical prescriptions for dental ailments. These dealt with stabilizing mobile teeth by packing some materials around them. They also meant to treat ulcers and infections.
These preventative treatments, while far from curing disease, sufficiently retarded its progress and provided some much-needed relief to the ancient Egyptian patients.
Source: Forshaw, Roger. (2013). Hesyre: The First Recorded Physician and Dental Surgeon in History. Bulletin of the John Rylands Library. 89. 181-202. 10.7227/BJRL.89.S.10. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/277553849_Hesyre_The_First_Recorded_Physician_and_Dental_Surgeon_in_History