What is a Dentist?


A dentist is a doctor whose specialty is oral health. While this doesn’t sound like a big deal, oral health is actually very important to the overall wellbeing. With this in mind, there are many facets to being a dentist. Just as a primary care doctor is responsible to help patients take preventative measures to prevent disease, a dentist’s responsibility is to help patients prevent oral diseases and problems.


Dentists also diagnose oral diseases. This is accomplished in several ways. They examine and interpret x-rays as well as perform diagnostic examinations. With this information in hand, they confer with the patient and create a treatment plan to maintain or restore good oral health. This treatment plan may just be making suggestions to the patient or it may be more involved. A dentist may need to take things to the next level and perform a procedure or surgery to restore the patient’s oral health. These procedures range from filling cavities to root canals or tooth extractions. It is also the dentist’s responsibility to oversee the administration of any anesthetic needed.


History of Dentistry and Dentists


Dentistry has roots in every time period in history. The first recorded mention of dental disease is from Ancient Sumer. An ancient Sumerian text refers to tooth decay and cites tooth worms as the cause.


The first written account of a dentist can be found in text from Ancient Egypt. A tomb dating back to around 2600 B.C. claims that Hesey-Re was the greatest of those who worked with teeth. There was also an Egyptian text from circa 1600 BC that described dental diseases and treatments.


Further mention of dentistry can be found among the writings of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Aristotle and Hippocrates both make mention of dental procedures including pulling teeth with forceps, using wire to fix jaw fractures, and treating tooth decay. There is evidence that the Etruscans created dental bridges and used gold to crown teeth.


The actual profession of dentistry began to develop during the Middle Ages. The guild of Barbers was formed and as time went on, began to evolve into two distinct groups. The first was lay barbers. Eventually this group was banned from doing surgeries other than tooth extractions and bleeding. They focused more on oral hygiene. The second group was known as barber-surgeons. These individuals were required to have more education and training on performing surgeries. They were the ones that performed the more complex surgeries needed.


It was in 1530 that a text entitled, Little Medicinal Book for All Kinds of Diseases and Infirmities of the Teeth, was written by Artzney Buchlein. This is the first known text that was entirely dedicated to what we now call dentistry. Within the covers of this book, lay barbers and barber-surgeons could read about topics such as oral health, drilling teeth, and using gold to fill teeth.

In 1760, a man by the name of John Baker immigrated to America from England and became the first medically trained dentist in America. His efforts were followed by others including Paul Revere. Revere had placed ads in several papers of the time advertising his services. He also became the first to use dental forensics to identify a fallen soldier. He identified his friend Dr. Joseph Warren after the Battle of Breed’s Hill by identifying a dental bridge that he created for the man. 


The late 1700s saw several other advancements in materials and equipment used in dentistry. Using porcelain to create teeth was patented in 1789 by a Frenchman named Nicolas Dubois de Chemant. American dentists also made contributions. John Greenwood was credited with creating the dental foot engine. This was a foot pedal from a spinning wheel that rotated a dental drill. Josiah Flagg was the one to invent the first dental chair to make dental procedures easier and more comfortable.


Even with all the advancements that dentistry had made over the course of history, it wasn’t until 1840 that the world’s first dental school was founded. The Baltimore College of Dental Surgery was established by Horace Hayden and Chapin Harris. This institution was also the first to offer the Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) degree. The college later merged with the University of Maryland.


The 1800s saw great strides in the education of dentists and the practice of dentistry. These strides included the likes of new and better dental equipment and procedures as well as improvements on the education of dentists. Among these notable changes was the establishment of standards in the practice of dentistry.


These changes and improvements continued into the 20th century as well. The 1900s saw changes such as the establishment of orthodontics as a separate profession and the use of lasers and composite resins to treat patients.


Pierre Fauchard


Pierre Fauchard is a French physician that has become known as the “Father of Modern Dentistry”.  In 1728, he authored The Surgeon Dentist. His book was the first comprehensive volume dedicated to various aspects of dentistry including dental anatomy and orthodontics.

G.V. Black


After serving in the Civil War as a union scout, Greene Vardiman Black studied dentistry. He became well known for his research and advancements in the field. He was the inventor of the first foot driven dental drill. He is also responsible for the cavity preparation standards that are still used today. In fact, the only changes that have been made to these standards is the addition of one additional classification. Black is also one of the dentists to originally experiment with the use of amalgam to fill cavities.


Edward Angle

Edward Angle was an American dentist that is widely regarded as the Father of American Orthodontics. He obtained his degree from the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery and began his career as a dentist in 1878. In 1886, he added teaching at the University of Minnesota to his accomplishments. By 1890, he had resigned his position in teaching and began specializing solely in orthodontics. In 1895, he published the fourth edition of his textbook, The angle system of regulation and retention of teeth and treatment of fractures of maxillae. In the years following, he became a professor of orthodontics at several different schools and published the sixth edition of his textbook. Edward Angle has forty-six patents and founded what has become the American Society for Orthodontists.


William Thomas Green Morton


William Thomas Green Morton began practicing dentistry in 1844. He worked with his former teacher and famed Boston chemist, Charles Jackson, to develop the usage of ether for surgical anesthesia. He successfully used ether for a procedure in September of 1846. Approximately two weeks later, he performed the first successful demonstration of its use. He used it on a patient undergoing a tumor operation.


Lucy Hobbs


Lucy Hobbs moved to Cincinnati in 1859 in order to study dentistry after teaching for a decade. When she was denied admittance to dental school, she found a professor from the Ohio College of Dental Surgery to tutor her privately. She opened her own practice in 1861 and gained recognition by the Iowa State Dental Society in 1865. Following this, she entered the Ohio College of Dental Surgery to earn her doctoral degree. In 1867, Lucy married James M. Taylor and convinced him to enter the field of dentistry. The two moved to Kansas where they opened and operated a practice until James’s death. After her husband’s death, Lucy left dentistry to advocate for women’s rights.


Guess who else was a Dentist


Edgar Buchanan: Buchanan, probably best known as Uncle Joe on Petticoat Junction actually had a successful career in dentistry before he moved to California in 1939 and began acting. His wife took over his practice after he left the practice.


John Henry Holliday: John Henry Holliday was a Pennsylvania trained dentist. He had a successful practice set up in Atlanta. However, he contracted tuberculosis and had to give up his practice to move out west. It was then that he and Wyatt Earp became friends and became known as Doc Holliday.


Zane Grey: Zane Grey is a name that is well known by those that love westerns. However, before penning over eighty books, Grey was a dentist in New York. However, once he became a published author, he abandoned his practice to pursue his writing career.


Thomas Welch: Yep, it’s that Welch. The man responsible for that sugary juice actually started out as a dentist. After retiring from dentistry, Welch wanted to create a non-alcoholic drink that could be used in churches. This led him to inventing a process to pasteurize grape juice without it fermenting.


Education Required


Dentists, like many other medical professionals, are licensed. These licenses require specific educational requirements, a written test, and experience gained under a licensed professional following graduation. The first stage in the education to become a dentist is the bachelor’s degree. There is no specific requirement as to what the degree needs to be in, but a science or health related degree is recommended. Some colleges even offer a pre-dentistry degree. Once this degree is completed, students then must take the DAT or dental admissions test.


In order to qualify for dental school, a bachelor’s degree and a passing score on the DAT is required. Some schools have additional requirements or look into other factors such as grade point average and extracurricular activities. Admission to dental school is highly competitive, so the better a candidate’s resume the better chance of admission.


Once admitted to an accredited dental school, a student may choose one of two degrees to work towards. There is the DMD degree (Doctor of Dental Medicine) or the DDS (Doctor of Dental Surgery). Both of these degrees are equal, consist of the same coursework, and allow a dentist to practice general dentistry.


Careers in Dentistry


Once a candidate graduates, they have the option of completing post-doctoral work to work in a specialty area. There are many areas of specialty including the following.


Pediatric Dentist: These professionals work with individuals from birth to age twenty-one. They are trained in the care and maintenance of growing teeth.


Cosmetic Dentist: Dentists that enter the field of cosmetic dentistry may work in general dentistry as well. The main focus of a cosmetic dentist is however, more aesthetic. This is the professional that a patient would see for procedures such as teeth whitening and veneers.


Orthodontist: Orthodontists usually work with younger patients whose teeth are still growing, though patients of any age are welcome to consult with them. They work with patients to ensure proper jaw alignment and teeth positioning. This is done using a variety of dental hardware such as spacers, braces, and retainers.


Periodontist: A periodontist is also known as a “gum doctor”. They work with patients to ensure the health of gums. They may also perform procedures for implants.


Oral Surgeon: Patients are often referred to oral surgeons for procedures that general dentists are not able to perform. Common oral surgeries include procedures such as wisdom tooth extraction, biopsies, and reconstruction after a facial trauma.


There are also positions within the dental profession that do not require a full doctorate degree. These careers include dental assistants who are responsible for assisting in procedures, but they are not qualified to complete any procedures on their own. Dental hygienists are responsible for completing routine cleanings of a patient’s teeth. They are also able to provide some basic dental care with the supervision of a licensed dentist. Dental lab technicians do not work directly with patients. They are responsible for the creation of items such as crowns and dentures within a lab setting.




Dentistry can be a very lucrative career with many possibilities. It is projected that the field of dentistry will grow approximately eighteen percent in the years leading up to 2024. As of 2014, there were approximately 129,000 practicing dentists in the United States. The average salary of a dentist in the United States is approximately $172,000.


Compensation for other careers in the field of dentistry varies by level of education. The lowest paid of these positions is the dental assistant. Dental assistants in the United States can expect to earn approximately $30,000. Dental hygienists can expect to make about twice that amount. Those working in the lab as dental technicians average approximately $40,000.


Professional Organizations


American Dental Association


The American Dental Association was founded in 1859 with the meeting of twenty-six dentists in Niagara Falls. The first president of the organization was Dr. William Atkinson. The ADA is a not-for-profit organization that is dedicated to providing information to patients as well as those in the dental profession. The ADA Seal of Approval was established to assure professionals as well as consumers that products they were using were actually safe and effective. Not all products submitted to the ADA are eligible for the ADA Seal of Approval. There is a strict set of guidelines that have been established to obtain the seal. Companies are required to submit data from clinical and/or scientific studies on the products. The company must demonstrate the safety and efficiency of the products being tested.


Academy of General Dentistry


The Academy of General Dentistry is an organization dedicated to continuing professional education. They offer various workshops and webinars to assist dentists in keeping up with current trends. They also offer resources to help dentists educate their patients on various issues.

International Association for Dental Research


The International Association for Dental Research is headquartered in Virginia. The mission of the organization is to advance research in the field of dentistry. They also provide support to researchers in the field as well as reporting and finding applications for research findings.


International Association for Orthodontics


The International Association for Orthodontics was established in 1961 to promote cooperation in the field of orthodontics. It is made up of professionals in the fields of orthodontics, pediatric dentistry, general dentistry, as well as any other professionals providing orthodontic care to patients. The goals of the group include promoting high ideals and the exchange of ideas as well as cooperation in orthodontics. They also aim to spread knowledge about the different conditions treated through orthodontics.


American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons


The American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons is an organization that is dedicated to promoting, protecting, and advancing the field of oral surgeons. Members of this organization are held to strict guidelines for educational advancement and routine office checks. The reasoning behind this is to assure patients that they are receiving the absolute best care and that all personnel meet stringent national standards.




The Journal of the American Dental Association


The Journal of the American Dental Association is a peer reviewed journal that was first published in 1913. It offers information to professionals on the latest research and techniques in the field of dentistry. It also updates dentists on the newest research linking dental health to patients’ overall well-being. JADA also has a continuing education program that is available to its subscribers.


ADA Professional Product Review


This publication first came out in 2006. The purpose of the publication is to offer professionals reviews of products that are unbiased and scientifically sound. Reviews are conducted within the ADA laboratories in conjunction with dental schools and other institutions.


Journal of Dental Hygiene


The Journal of Dental Hygiene is a peer-reviewed scientific research journal for those working in the field of dental hygiene. The goal of the publication is to provide hygienists with current information to help them make more evidence based treatment decisions.

Journal of Dental Research


The Journal of Dental Research is produced by SAGE Journals. It is a peer reviewed journal that allows dental professionals to share their research findings in the fields of dental, oral, and craniofacial research.


Journal of Dentistry


The Journal of Dentistry is an international journal geared toward professionals in the field of restorative dentistry. The goal of the journal is to publish novel, high quality articles that will influence the future of the field of dentistry. Articles submitted to the journal are peer reviewed before publication.


Dr. Samuel D. Harris National Museum of Dentistry


There is even a museum that is dedicated to the field of dentistry. The Museum, located in Baltimore, Maryland, is part of the University of Maryland, School of Dentistry. The museum contains a collection of over 40,000 objects and its mission is to educate the public about the importance of oral health. This Smithsonian Institute Affiliate offers entertaining and educational exhibits that are open to the public including school groups.  


Why do patients need to visit the dentist regularly?


While a visit to the dentist can be a less than pleasant experience and many people fear the dentist, it is important to a person’s overall health to see the dentist regularly. The American Dental Association recommends that individuals visit the dentist for a cleaning and a check-up at least twice a year.  This visit allows the dental hygienist to clean a person’s teeth more thoroughly than what can be accomplished at home. The hygienist has access to specialized equipment. He or she may also be able to offer suggestions for patients to maintain better oral health at home.


Many dental issues don’t present themselves in a visible or painful way until the condition is more advanced. Regular dental check-ups allow the dentist to use methods such as x-rays to monitor the condition of a patient’s teeth. Finding and fixing problems early prevents irreversible damage to the teeth and gums.


While cavities may seem like a minor ailment to most people, left untreated, they can result in serious health issues. Untreated cavities can lead to infection. This infection if undetected or untreated could then spread to the bloodstream causing a condition called, septicemia. Septicemia is also known as blood poisoning. This is a serious condition that can quickly become life threatening. It is a bacterial infection in the blood that could lead to sepsis. Sepsis is inflammation throughout the body which can lead to clotting and organs shutting down.














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