Open Wide: Discovering Baltimore’s Place in Dentistry History

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NationalDentistryMuseumThis summer, Lauren Eller is visiting some of Baltimore’s neighborhood-level museums. Like the communities where they are located, these museums have a strong, colorful identity all their own. Each deserves a closer look, for though they may be off the beaten track, the history held within is both harrowing and fascinating in equal turns.

Many people may dread a trip to the dentist, but a trip to the National Museum of Dentistry shouldn’t inspire that same kind of fear. Located right by the University of Maryland Medical Center, it contains a comprehensive history of dentistry complete with engaging and interactive exhibits.

In fact, Baltimore is a standout when it comes to dentistry’s legacy. The Baltimore College of Dental Surgery, which opened its doors in 1840, was the first dental college in the entire world. Pretty impressive. The museum delves into an exploration of the development of the field (and the rise of the dental hygienist), the creation of anesthesia, and the sometimes tumultuous relationship that people have had with their dentist and their own teeth.

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There were a number of eye-catching displays as well. There was a wall that flaunted myriad toothbrushes that have been in use over the years, and a table with various tools dentists used back in the day (some of which look eerily like instruments of torture … luckily we’ve come a long way since then). I learned that even though humans have 32 teeth, 44 is the optimal number for mammals, and that teeth first appeared in small mollusks’ shells about 420 million years ago. Of particular interest was the display containing the most complete set to date of George Washington’s teeth.

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Walking among the toothbrushes, extraction tools, and old velvety dentists’ chairs, I began to get a sense of how different tooth care was many years ago from where we are today. Teeth are so essential to our daily functions, but before people understood the importance of keeping them clean, they often became a source of pain and a scene of disrepair. But lucky for us, dentistry has flourished and allowed us to keep flashing our pearly whites — something our ancestors couldn’t always do.

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The National Museum of Dentistry feels a bit off the beaten track, at least in terms of Baltimore destinations, but serves as an important historical record of an often overlooked subject.

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