The ancients knew a space where a tooth should be was no good, and many cultures, including the ancient Egyptians, experimented with using materials we'd never think to put in our mouths today as the next best thing to our real teeth. But dental implants as we know them today are a relatively new phenomenon -- invented not on purpose and not even by a dentist.
According to the International Congress of Oral Implantologists, the world's largest dental implant organization, archeologists in the 1930s recovered ancient Mayan skulls, with evidence that carved seashells had been nailed into the jawbone to create some of the earliest forms of artificial teeth. Archeological evidence from other cultures, including the Etruscans of Italy and the Egyptians, showed that cast iron, copper and even oxen bone were used to make the first teeth substitutes. Some of these early experiments actually worked well, eventually fusing to the bone just as real teeth.
This century was one of substantial scientific discovery, and the realm of dental implantology did not go untouched during this time period. Dentists during this era replaced rotting teeth with extracted teeth from other people. As you might imagine, the success rates weren't high because of infection due to crudely-fashioned replacements. According to a report in the Compendium of Continuing Education in Dentistry, throughout the century porcelain, gold, silver and even lead were used as implants, with varying degrees of success.
Great strides were made when Dr. A.E. Strock of Harvard used a mixed alloy called vitallium in the bone in the following century. According to L.A. Implants, a California-based provider of cosmetic dentistry and implant procedures, the vitallium implant first proved successful in animals and was later used in humans. It's still being used for some implants today.
The biggest breakthrough in implantology came when Swedish orthopedist Per Ingvar Branemark discovered the metal titanium's value to synthetic teeth -- purely by accident. He was conducting research on how bones healed in rabbits by inserting a titanium device into the animals' thighbones. An unintended consequence was that the pricey titanium equipment fused to the bone in a few months. The doctor had, quite unwittingly, discovered the process of osseointegration, whereby a foreign substance bonds to live bone tissue, according to the Dental Implants Guide, a comprehensive site for patients and dentists on the ins and outs of implants and implant-related innovations.
This breakthrough occurred in 1952. By 1965, Branemark conducted his first titanium-rooted implant procedure on a volunteer. In 1978, he commercialized the Branemark Titanium Screw. According to L.A. Implants, more than 7 million implants have been applied under the Branemark name since this time.
Dr. Branemark's discovery has left quite an impression on dental professionals. Chances are, if you get an implant, it will be titanium-rooted. That's because, according to the International Congress of Oral Implantologists, the metal is both lightweight and durable. In addition, unlike other metals, the body doesn't reject titanium.