IT’S HARD TO IMAGINE root canal therapy taking place before the modern day, with all the specialized tools and knowledge we have. It’s true that it’s never been better than it is now, but people have been trying to operate on diseased dental pulp for over two millennia.
A Brief Timeline of Endodontics
A skull was discovered in Israel from the second or third century B.C. with bronze wire inside one tooth, suggesting that there was an ancient technique to treat an infected tooth without extracting it. It’s been a long and at times incredibly dramatic road to modern endodontics from there.
- Mid-1700s: Pierre Fauchard, the father of modern dentistry, described dental pulp removal and debunked the idea that cavities and toothaches are caused by “tooth worms.” (Nope, the culprit was sugar all along!)
- 1820: Leonard Koecker used a heated instrument to cauterize exposed dental pulp, which he protected with lead foil.
- 1838: Edwin Maynard in Washington, D.C. filed a watch spring into the first root canal instrument.
- 1847: Edwin Truman first used gutta percha as a filling material in a tooth. We still use gutta percha today!
- 1864: S.C. Barnum in New York prepared a thin rubber leaf to isolate the infected tooth during treatment, and with G.A. Bowman developed the rubber dam clamp a couple years later. These are all still part of the modern root canal therapy process.
- 1895: Konrad Wilhelm von Roentgen stumbled across X-rays by accident. Within weeks, German dentist Otto Walkhoff put them to good use and took the first dental radiograph.
Focal Infection Theory Throws Everything Off
Alas, after all those excellent advancements in the 1800s, E.C. Rosenow struck a terrible blow to the field of endodontics in 1909. He theorized (very wrongly) that endodontic treatment caused “focal infections,” meaning that they supposedly created a pathway for chronic disease to pop up in other parts of the body.
Whether Rosenow was acting maliciously or foolishly, he got the whole thing backwards. Treating an infected tooth actually removes bacteria from the body and prevents it from reaching the bloodstream. If the tooth is left untreated, a tooth infection can become life-threatening.
Focal infection theory might seem ridiculous today, but at the time, it nearly destroyed the field of endodontics. Countless teeth that could have been saved were pulled, and worse, many perfectly healthy teeth were pulled in the hopes that doing so would cure random ailments throughout the body. A mountain of lab research and clinical evidence in support of endodontic treatment finally won the day in the early ‘50s. How much farther would we be if we hadn’t lost decades to a quack theory?
Endodontics Emerges Victorious!
Modern endodontic therapy enjoys one of the highest surgical success rates in all of medicine, despite that lengthy setback. A critical addition in recent decades was modern anesthesiology, but that deserves its own timeline. The science of pain relief is what makes it possible to ensure our patients’ comfort during treatment.
Modern Endodontists Stand on the Shoulders of Giants
After such a winding road, we are proud to be where we are in endodontics today. So many minds got the field to where it is, and now we are able to save patients’ teeth while keeping them comfortable. If you think you might have a tooth that needs saving by an endodontist, don’t wait to find out!