When speaking about the history of American dentistry, it is impossible to ignore the contributions of John Baker. He is widely considered the first dentist to practice in North America, and as such holds a special place in dental history. He would be the first of many dentists that immigrated to the American Colonies (soon to be states) from Europe and helped elevate the way teeth and oral ailments were treated thanks to some recent advances.
While many people have anxieties about visiting the dentist, the level of care and sophistication of the equipment and treatments being used today are light years away from what people had to endure even a few generations ago. In the latest in our series of Contributions To Dentistry, I will examine who John Baker was and how he helped to change the course of dental (and United States) history.
Who was John Baker?
Though little is known with certainty about his early life, John Baker emigrated from England to North America in 1760, making him the first medically trained dentist to set up shop in America. He had previously travelled to several countries in Europe, and had trained with several prominent dentists prior to setting out on the journey across the Atlantic.
He continued to travel throughout the colonies, settling at various points in Boston, Williamsburg, and Virginia. While in Boston, he taught his techniques for fabricating and installing artificial teeth to a young Paul Revere.
Baker was connected to another luminary among America’s founding fathers. According to one anecdote, during the Revolutionary War, the British Army intercepted a letter from General Washington was captured en route to its recipient. The British were hoping to find some important information regarding the Colonial Army’s location or logistics. Instead it was a letter to his dentist regarding the need for pincers to fix the wires that were holding together his many false teeth.
That dentist’s name: John Baker. In fact, historians believe that it was Baker who constructed Washington’s dentures in the first place, though it is quite possible a number of different dental practitioners had a hand in the construction of the first American president’s false teeth. Historians have noted that Washington was afflicted with dental problems from an early age, and was constantly requiring the services of dentists such as John Baker throughout his life.
What is the origin of the word dentist?
The terms dentistry and dentist originate from the French language, and the word dentiste, which was the word used for a medical person who was expected to treat broken or infected teeth, pull them when necessary, and replace them with false teeth. Going back even further, the French word came from the Latin word for teeth (dens) and the Ancient Greek word odous. Our word odontology, which is the study of the structure and development of teeth, is therefore of Greek origin.
Why this is of interest in an article about John Baker is that the earliest recorded use of the word dentist in the English language can be found in an advertisement placed by Baker in the Boston News-Letter in 1767. It referred to Baker as a Surgeon-Dentis. Lest it seem like this was a typo, at least two more notices from Baker have been found with the same spelling. Subsequently, he changed the spelling to dentist, and that is the word we still use today.
Previous to the word dentist, it was common to call people who operated on teeth an operator for the teeth or a tooth-drawer.
What was dentistry like in John Baker’s time?
When John Baker began his career as a dentist-surgeon, the field of dentistry was in its very early days. This was well before doctors had access to anesthesia or Novocain, and even the simplest dental tools we are accustomed to today were still hard to come by. In this environment, frequently the only remedy for treating an ailing tooth was to remove it, and the state of dentures and false teeth was still in a very primitive stage.
To give just one example of what dentistry was like in the 18th century, a common practice at the time was for rich patients who had lost teeth to have them replaced by paying for teeth that were pulled from the mouths of poor children. Other sources of replacement teeth included dead bodies and prisons. Adding insult to injury, most dental patients were forced to sit or lay on the floor while they were being attended to.
But the truth was, that even if dentistry was still in its infancy, having access to a dentist was still a luxury at this time. For most people, an ailing tooth meant a trip to a barber or blacksmith, rather than a trained medical practitioner. At this same time, sugar consumption was on the rise, meaning that people were more likely than ever to be faced with tooth decay, as the dentists of the age were only just starting to identify the causes of cavities and other ailments, such as gum disease.
With the state of dentistry such as it was, it’s a wonder that people were able to survive it. We all owe a debt of gratitude to the pioneering dentists like John Baker who dedicated their lives to advancing the cause of dentistry.
Your Grove, Oklahoma Dental Specialists
When patients visit Grand Lake Dental, they are usually struck by the modern facilities and family atmosphere. But rarely do they consider the legacy of American dentistry and how far we have come as an industry thanks to pioneers like John Baker. Dr. Jobst understands that he and all dentists in the 21st century owe Dr. Baker and his peers a debt of gratitude, and it’s thanks to them that we enjoy the comfort and skill of today’s oral surgeons and dental practitioners.
With some of the most advanced equipment and facilities in the State of Oklahoma, the entire staff at Grand Lake Dental is dedicated to serving the families of our community. Anytime you pay a visit to Dr. Jobst, you can rest easy knowing you’ll be attended to with the best available treatments.
Call us today to make your next appointment.