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The history of dentists using gold

Written By David Silverberg




Dentists have long been wielding gold in people’s mouths for centuries, but when did it all begin and why gold? If you’re curious about the history of gold being used as fillings material, Muzeum Dental has compiled a thorough history of dentists using gold.

From ancient Egypt to the Vikings When it comes to the use gold in the human mouth, gold wire was first employed in ancient Egypt, estimated to begin around 3,000 B.C. One theory suggests that dentistry work began when “man's change from a way of life entirely dependent on hunting to one dependent on food production from crops and herds extended his life span by one or two decades so that the loosening of incisor teeth as a result of degeneration of surrounding tissues — a feature of advancing age — became a problem,” as this paper from the British Dental Association Museum writes. It’s noted that with the development of early gold metallurgy there was a need to hold loose incisor teeth in place by gold wire, which was twisted around them and the canines. Evidence of this usage can be found in Egyptian burial grounds, but also teeth bound together by gold wire were found in a pre-Columbian tomb at Esmeraldas, Ecuador, and in Etruscan burial sites.

The Arab world also were enlightened to this practice around 11th century AD, when several manuscripts revealed the recommendation to use gold wire to help make teeth more firm. Gold was the preferred precious metal because it was known as being unalterable, while silver turns green in a few days.

Ancient China also leaned towards gold applications in teeth. Several accounts from that era note references of “gold teeth” dating back to the 7th century AD. Teeth were often adorned via an insertion of several golden inlays into small perforations cut into the enamel of the upper incisors.

Turning to Sweden, the Vikings' teeth filings have only been found in men, and rather than decorating their teeth with gold, the Vikings filed ridges into them and it was done not to identify one’s social standing but to create a group identity.

Also, in certain regions of the Philippines, Bhutan and surrounding countries, the activity of inlaying small gold discs in the surfaces of anterior teeth was also quite common. A recent discovery in Tuscany found that unique 400-year-old dental prosthesis appeared to predate modern tooth bridges. The appliance consists of five teeth – three central incisors and two lateral canines aligned in an incorrect anatomical sequence. Belonging to different individuals, the teeth were then linked together by a golden band. Later in the 18th century, dentistry pioneers such as Pierre Fauchard of Paris wrote how  “loose teeth can be tightened by turns of gold wire” and offered instructions for cooking the wire in the fire, throwing it into vinegar to restore its colour and for its careful application to the teeth. Other dentists of that era also reported a technique of retaining small dentures carved from ivory by spring clasps of round gold wire which encircled adjoining teeth. Later in World War I, gold wire continued to be used but mainly for wiring treatment of fractured jaws, although steel was later employed instead of gold.

When did gold fillings begin? The only printed evidence of gold fillings use came from a 1530 book called Dental Medicine which revealed this passage when discussing teeth corrosion: “Scrape and clean the hole and the area of decay with a fine small chisel or a little knife or a file, or with another suitable instrument, and then to preserve the other part of the tooth, fill the cavity with gold leaves.” In the 18th century, dentist Claude Moulton is known for describing the first way that a gold crown can be retained within the root canal. To ensure dental work didn’t affecting a patient’s appearance, he also recommended that white enameling be used. Another method, albeit difficult to accomplish, came from American dentist A. J. Watts and focused on dissolving the mercury from an amalgam of gold via nitric acid. This left the gold in a finely divided, easily adapted state that could be bonded into a solid mass by pressure. The goal of Watts' invention was to lower the tedium of filling large cavities piece by piece or strip by strip with foil. He inserting gold in the new form in bigger portions and compacted it quickly.

Then throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, dental patients began to see metal and amalgam fillings, but porcelain and gold also enjoyed frequent use.

Why was gold prized as a filling material? Among its advantages is the inert nature of the material, the way in which it can be forced against the cavity edge to make a solid seal and the fact that fillings can easily be polished to a very smooth surface finish. 

Today gold foil fillings come in two varieties: in sheets supplied in books, which then can be rolled in various sizes; and E-Z Gold, which is gold foil wrapped around a mixture of powdered gold and molten wax.

The purpose of this paper is to tackle the reasons why gold foil is not in general use today and reveal how relatively easy an cost-effective it can be to use this material, which due to its biocompatibility can potentially last the patient’s lifetime.

Gold is also prevalent in dental scrap, among other materials such as silver and palladium. Old restorations may have more value than at first glance. For example, the precious alloys used to make yellow gold crowns can sometimes hover around the 10 to 20 karats level. And silver-coloured ("white" gold) crowns may also hold significant precious metal content. Dentists have to also build that hidden metal substructure of porcelain-fused-to-metal crowns and those bridges are sometimes made from precious-metal alloy.

If you’re a dentist looking to trade in your dental scrap for cash, learn more about the free dental scrap kit we are making available to any dentist in North America. Also, if you have questions about dental scrap refining or any of our services, contact us anytime.

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