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symbol of dentistry chavin dental lafayette la

Do you know the meaning behind the official symbol of dentistry?

symbol of dentistry chavin dental lafayette laThe symbol of dentistry, a staff with a snake coiled around it, flanked by leaves, inside a triangle, surrounded by (and intertwined with) a circle, and on a purple background. Chosen in 1965, the symbol has been around for over 50 years. It looks cool, but what in the world does it stand for?

As with many things, the symbol has its origins in mythology. Enter Asclepius – one of the earlier gods associated with health. Asclepius was a son of Apollo (who you may recognize as the god who drives the chariot across the sky each day, bringing the sun with him). Apollo was known for healing, among other things.

Asclepius was primarily known for his healing abilities, and his symbol was a staff entwined with a snake. Believed to have taken the form of a serpent, the story goes that Asclepius healed the Greek people that were suffering from a Roman plague.

Although snakes have a negative connotation today, from a mythological standpoint, the snake was a creature of rebirth. They saw the shedding of its skin as  a rejuvenation, a healing. You’ll notice that his symbol is also very similar to the symbol of medicine, the Caduceus; a winged staff with two snakes twirling around it.

Interestingly enough, the serpent has a healing representation in the Old Testament too! Moses made a brass serpent, put it on a pole, and “… if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.” (Numbers 21:9) This is also connected to the origins of the Caduceus.

Also appearing on the symbol of dentistry are two branches of leaves with berries on them. This is a very specific reference to the number of teeth people have. There are 32 leaves, for 32 permanent (adult) teeth, and 20 berries, representing primary (children’s) teeth.

The triangle is actually the greek letter Δ, delta, here referring to “dentistry”. The circle is Ο, omicron. Omicron represents “odont” – the greek word for tooth. The two symbols are woven together. The purple color is actually lilac, and was selected as the color of dentistry by the NADF (National Association of Dental Faculties) in 1897.

Symbols and logos are never what they appear to be at face value. Each element is carefully chosen, and with a little digging, you too can discover what they really mean. In the meantime, if you need to see a dentist, give Dr. Chauvin a call!

ancient dental tools

The History of Dentistry

Dentistry is not a new profession. In fact, it’s probably much older than you think it is. It wasn’t a Renaissance idea, or even a Roman idea. Dentistry can trace its roots all the way back to 5000 BC! There is a Sumerian text that says that dental decay is caused by “tooth worms”. Gross! Fortunately they were wrong.

Flash forward about 2400 years, to 2600 BC, to the death of the first dentist. An Egyptian scribe named Hesy-Re had the following inscribed on his tomb: “the greatest of those who deal with teeth, and of physicians.” This is the first recorded instance of a person identifying as a dentist. Also in Egypt, between 1700 and 1550 BC, a text was found that refers to toothache remedies and tooth disease. This document was called the Ebers Papyrus.

A thousand years later, two of the most famous philosophers ever documented, Hippocrates and Aristotle, wrote about dentistry. They got into great detail! Discussing how teeth erupt, how to remove teeth, how to treat gum disease and tooth decay, and how to stabilize damaged teeth and jaws with wire.

The next thousand years see three major dental developments:

  • 100 BC: A medical writer from Rome, named Celsus, wrote about oral hygiene, how to treat toothaches, jaw fractures, teething pain, and how to stabilize loose teeth.
  • 166-201 AD: Dental prosthetics, including fixed bridges and gold crowns, are developed and used by the Etruscans.
  • 700 AD: Silver paste, an amalgam used for fillings, is mentioned in a Chinese medical text.

ancient dental toolsThe Guild of Barbers is created in 1210 in France. These were not all the “shave and a haircut” barbers we know today. There were two groups that emerged. The traditional barber, or “lay barber”, who performed haircuts, but some of their duties also included teeth extraction and bleeding! The second group were called surgeons, and were trained to perform complex surgery. Could you imagine going to get a haircut and a tooth pulled all by the same person?

The Guild of Barbers ran into trouble in 1400. Royals in France decreed that lay barbers must cease all surgical procedures, except for extracting teeth, leeching, bleeding, and cupping.

Between 1500 and 1600, two books are published. They both contain information on oral hygiene, the drilling of teeth, how to perform fillings and tooth extractions, and how to treat tooth decay.

By the 1700s, dentistry had become a well known profession.  In 1723, Pierre Fauchard, a French surgeon referred to as the Father of Modern Dentistry, published his influential book, The Surgeon Dentista Treatise on Teeth, defining a comprehensive system for oral hygiene and treatment of teeth.  He also presented the idea of dental fillings and the use of dental prosthesis, and identified that acids from sugar led to tooth decay.

In 1840, the first dental college (Baltimore College of Dental Surgery) opened.  In the United States, Alabama led the way by enacting the first dental practice act in 1841 to regulate dentistry in the U.S. Nearly 20 years later, the American Dental Association (ADA) was formed. The first university-affiliated dental institution, the Harvard University Dental School, was founded in 1867.

By 1873, Colgate had mass produced the first toothpaste, and mass-produced toothbrushes followed a few years later.

What may come as a surprise is that the first African American to earn a dental degree dates all the way back to 1869, and the first female dental assistant, Malvina Cueria,  was employed in New Orleans in 1885. What might be most surprising of all is that most Americans did not adopt good brushing habits until after World War II, when soldiers stationed abroad brought the concept of good oral health back to the United States!

If you want to learn more about the history of dentistry, click here. If you have questions about your dental care, give us a call! We’ll be happy to answer your questions!