How have dentures been constructed over time? What materials were used in the earliest form of dentures?

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Jamie Wheeler eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Let’s begin with a definition. Dentures (often called “false teeth”) can be either fixed or removable manufactured replacements that mimic a patient’s former natural teeth. For centuries, it has been known that when a tooth has become damaged beyond repair or is lost, and the roots of the tooth have been damaged beyond repair, a replacement must be created. The reasons are far more than cosmetic: if the teeth are not replaced, the teeth on each side of the missing tooth or teeth will tilt toward the gap. Eventually, the teeth in the other jaw begin to move that way as well.

The first types of replacements for missing teeth were constructed from animal teeth or pieces of bone. In an ancient Egyptian tomb, archeologists discovered two teeth, thought to be molars, wrapped in gold wire. Other substances used in more recent centuries have included ivory, platinum, and even porcelain. These false teeth were hand-carved. Interestingly, the long-held story that George Washington’s teeth were made from wood is untrue. “George Washington’s Mount Vernon,” which manages the first president’s estate reports:

Next to the Cherry Tree legend, the story that George Washington wore wooden dentures arguably remains the most widespread and enduring myth about Washington's personal life. While Washington certainly suffered from dental problems and wore multiple sets of dentures composed of a variety of materials—including ivory, gold, and lead—wood was never used in Washington's dentures nor was it commonly employed by dentists in his era.

Fortunately, dentistry has come a long way since the days of bone, gold, or porcelain, as have the methods for affixing dentures in the mouth. Today, dentures are constructed from lightweight metal alloys and plastic resins, making the false teeth more attractive, durable and efficient in chewing.

Denture technology improved considerably in the 1980s when “dental implants,” rather than removable dentures became available. Dental implants permanently attached the dentures to the bones in the jaw. Older dentures had to be removed, clean, and repeatedly attached in the mouth. Dentists who prepare these implants are called “denturists.”

Modern dentistry offers several kinds of tooth replacement options. A full denture is created when both the teeth and the bone underneath must be restored; this is necessary when all the teeth in an arch are lost. There are also “partial dentures,” frequently also called a “fixed bridge” when healthy teeth are next to the lost teeth spaces. Partial dentures attach to the surrounding teeth, whether those adjacent teeth are healthy teeth, crowns, or caps. Another type of dentures is called a “removable partial bridge.” In this type of denture, the partial sits on the soft tissues of the jaws and held steady by supports, typically metal clasps. The most modern sort of dentures are dental implants which allow prosthetic teeth to be permanently implanted into the bones of the jaw.

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Though modern dental implants were possible once the old technologies were replaced by new techniques and materials, archaeologists have proven that the idea of dental implants is more than hundreds of years old. For example, the Mayans tried to replace a lost tooth by filling up the empty place with fragments of bones, seashells and carved stones. Archeological proofs revealed that this rudimentary ancient technique was successful because the mixture used to replace the tooth joined the jawbone.

In other cultures lost teeth were easily replaced with human and animal teeth joined together with a wire. This method of replacement had a major disadvantage, namely lack of stability, since the set of replaced teeth fell out often. Though, with a low degree of practicality, this method of replacement of lost teeth with human and animal teeth, joined with wire, was the only method possible until the mid-1800s.

In 1774, Alexis Duchateau invented the first porcelain dentures but again, the degree of practicality was decreased by the properties of porcelain, such as its fragility (easy to chip) and unnatural whitish color. In 1820, the goldsmith Claudius Ash improved the porcelain dentures by mounting the porcelain on 18-karat gold plates. Claudius Ash's company produced also the cheaper substitute of the porcelain dentures, called dental vulcanite.

In 1952, the orthopedic surgeon Branemark accidentally discovered the great property of titanium that he called osseointegration. From that point, modern dental implants used the remarkable properties of Titanium.