Practical observations on the human teeth (1783)

Practical observations on the human teeth (1783)


Robert Wooffendale (1742-1828)

In the 17th century, there was practically no trained dentist in America. Dental schools had to wait for another 200 years. The first “trained” dentists came from Europe in the middle of the 18th century. One of the most impactful arrival was that of Robert Wooffendale. Born in 1742 in England, he was originally trained as a druggist, and after several years of apprenticeship, we find him working in a London apothecary. However, in 1765 he started a dental apprenticeship with Thomas Berdmore soon to become dentist to the British King George III. A year later, in 1766, when Berdmore was actually appointed dentist to the King, Wooffendale decided to sail to America. The ship sailed from Falmouth to New York where he first settled. He is considered as one of the very first to practice dentistry in America full time. Between 1766-1768 he practiced in three of the largest East Coast cities, New York, Baltimore and Philadelphia. Wooffendale is credited to have prepared the first set of complete dentures to one William Walton in New York. Wooffendale also married the adoptive daughter of Mr. Walton. Dentists with good reputation were also sought out for apprenticeship. Among the more famous dentists that he trained was Paul Revere, of revolutionary fame who alerted Washington’s troops that the British were coming. A second pupil, John Greenwood, was more consequential on American dentistry. He was one of eight dentists engaged in the services of George Washington. In a letter, Washington disclosed that of all the dentists, he favored John Greenwood.

Thomas Berdmore spent little time in America. After a mere two years he returned to England with his wife and set up practice in London. Berdmore published several studies. His first book published in 1775 is entitled The toilet of flora. It is a short book on oral hygiene, a volume we also possess in our library. In 1783, he published “Practical Observations on the Human Teeth,” a survey of the dental knowledge of the time and the book we feature in this story. It is Berdmore’s most important scientific legacy. The book includes illustrations of teeth with unusual deformities or roots, information about the eruption sequence of teeth, description of common procedures, misconceptions, and useful treatments modalities. Wooffendale describes cases and personal experiences using an abstergent lotion and a tooth whitening product. To test if the lotion affects the healthy enamel, Wooffendale designed careful experiments, keeping teeth in the solution for months at a time and comparing them to controls. Closely observing the lack of effect of his lotion on the enamel, he was encouraged to recommend it as a tooth- cleaning/whitening agent. His experimental method is reasonably detailed for anyone to reproduce it, a novelty in scientific experimentation for the period.

Three years after his book was printed, in 1786 Wooffendale published A concise relation of the effects of an extraordinary style, followed by Museum of medicine in 1792 and Gift for people in 1796. Each of these volumes are available in our library.

Wooffendale and his American wife returned again to New York in 1793. He practiced dentistry until his death. He is buried in New York. Even though his physical presence in America was a short two years during his first sojourn, by training others and pioneering new procedures, Wooffendale served as the godfather of dentistry in America and his influence on, and contribution to American dentistry was real.

Digital Version

(Based on research and essay by Mike Jaafar, class of 2024 as part of his assignment in the Elective in History of Medicine and Dentistry Course Fall 2020). Edited by Andrew I Spielman.