It may surprise you, but dental implants are not a new thing. They’ve been around for thousands of years.
And if you have gotten or need to get a dental implant, you should be thankful you were born in this millenia because the original practices sound excruciatingly painful and somewhat barbaric.
It all started as far back as 4,000 years ago when China carved bamboo pegs to use as teeth replacement. They were tapped into the bone where the missing tooth was.
And then 2,000 years ago, Egypt did something along those lines, making similar looking pegs made out of precious metals that they tapped into the jawbone. Archaeologists have found mummies with transplanted human teeth and even artificial teeth made of ivory.
Then in 1931, a man named Wilson Popenoe, along with his wife, found the lower jaw of a young Mayan woman in Honduras. This lower mandible, which dates back to 600 A.D., had three missing incisor teeth that had been replaced by pieces of shell. The shell pieces had been purposefully shaped like natural teeth.
And they noticed bone growth and calculus formations around the teeth, meaning they were not just for aesthetics, they were also functional. If you want to see this in-person, you can visit the Osteological Collection of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University.
Fortunately, modern technology and medicine have made getting a dental implant much more doable.
Modern Developments In Dental Implants
Fast forward to the 18th century and researchers started experimenting with dental implants made of gold and alloy. Unfortunately, these were somewhat of a failure, but it’s only in failure that we learn what not to do, eventually leading us to the right way.
Dental Implants From The 1500 To The 1800s
In Europe from the 1500s to the 1800s, professionals in the dentist industry would collect teeth from the underprivileged or cadavers to use as dental implants. During this time, Dr. John Hunter had been working with people who robbed graves (aka “resurrectionists”), observing the bodies they would bring him. In doing this, he was able to document in detail the anatomy of the human mouth.
Then in the 1700s, Dr. Hunter thought it could work to transplant teeth from one live human to another. He first tried implanting a tooth into the comb of a rooster (the fleshy growth on top of a rooster’s head, usually red). He found that the tooth embedded itself in the comb and the rooster’s blood vessels grew into the pulp of the tooth.
That experiment spurred the development of dental implants.
In 1809, J. Maggiolo, who had a degree in medicine, placed a gold implant tube into a space where a missing tooth was. After letting the site heal, he added a crown. However, severe inflammation occurred in the patient’s mouth right after the procedure.
Throughout the 1800s, dental and medical professionals experimented with many different materials, including silver capsules, corrugated porcelain, and iridium tubes. In 1886, a doctor used an implant with a porcelain crown that sat on a platinum disc.
But these were all unsuccessful. The main reason for the failures in the early days of dental implants is because the bone rejected whatever material was used. As you may or may not know, a successful implant involves the material permanently fusing with the jawbone.
Dental Implants In The 1900s
Even throughout the 20th century, many doctors and surgeons tried different techniques and different materials, but none of them had the long-term resilience they were seeking.
In 1913, Dr. EJ Greenfield tried to use a “24-gauge hollow latticed cylinder of iridio-platinum soldered with 24-karat gold,” according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information.
Then there are the Strock brothers — Drs. Alvin and Moses. They tried using orthopedic screw fixtures made of Vitallium (a biocompatible metal) after observing physicians placing implants in patients’ hip bones. This screw fixture provided more support for dental implants than ones before it. The Strock brothers are widely regarded as the first to successfully place an implant into the bone.
Moving on to the 1940s, Drs. Formiggini (regarded as the “Father of Modern Implantology”) and Zepponi created a spiral stainless steel design, which allowed a patient’s bone to grow into the metal, giving the implant even more support. Then people like Dr. Raphael Chercheve, Gustav Dahl, Dr. Aaron Gershkoff and Dr. Norman Goldberg, and Lew, Bausch, and Berman.
All of these people were instrumental in the evolution of dental implants, but there is one person who was especially pivotal in this evolutionary process: Dr. Per-Ingvar Brånemark.
In 1952, an orthopaedic surgeon named Per-Ingvar Brånemark accidentally figured out that titanium implants have a much higher success rate. He had placed a piece of titanium in a rabbit’s femur during a separate experiment and was unable to remove it. That’s when he realized the titanium had fused with the bone.
Thirteen years later, he placed his first titanium implant into a person. This was a breakthrough in the field of dental implants.
He went on to publish many studies showing the benefits of using titanium implants. In 1978, he partnered with the Swedish defence company called Bofors AB (later known as Nobel Industries) in order to develop and market his type of implants.
Present And Future
Since Brånemark’s discovery, oral surgeons have used that same basic practice but added improvements along the way. Over 7 million Brånemark System implants have been places, on top of the implants placed from hundreds of other companies.
Dental implants continue to be made of high-grade titanium alloy and are screw shaped so they can more securely go into the jawbone. Though this method has benefits and risks, it is the standard for implants. The screw-in metal dental implant has become the best tooth replacement method worldwide.
Thanks to experimenters and curious people, dental implants have come a long way since their inception roughly 4,000 years ago.
And thank goodness, otherwise we’d still be tapping pieces of bamboo into our jaw bones without anesthesia.