Ingenuity and Practical Application: The History of the First Root Canal Instruments

The story of the very first root canal instruments like the ones we use today possesses something of a legendary status among dentists. It’s the kind of story your professors in college like to tell novice practitioners due to the general ingenuity and amazing practicality of the initial creation of the tools still used in modern root canal procedures.

Root canals are part of endodontic (inside the tooth) therapy to treat infected pulp in order to both decontaminate and protect it from further damage. This involves a great deal of removing nerve tissue, blood vessels, and cellular entities within the tooth itself. The affected area is then reshaped with files, and irrigated with disinfectant before filing down the decontaminated area and filling it with a substance called gutta-percha and capping off the filling off with foil. Here’s how the current procedure for a root canal was initially discovered in the 19th century, and how the techniques and applications developed centuries ago are still in use today.

A Man, An Infected Tooth, and a Watchspring

The first root canal that established the modern techniques was conducted in 1838 by a Washington, D.C. dentist name Edwin Maynard. Maynard was a dentist who was seeking a way to safely access the pulp of an infected tooth without permanently damaging it, and thus requiring its removal. In order to safely get access to the infected tooth pulp, Maynard had to find a way to remove the cap of the tooth without destroying its overall structure and potentially spreading the infection to the rest of the jawbone.

His solution was as simple as it was ingenious: he created a tiny file that could be attached to a drill head by manually filing down a steel watch spring. This created a delicate enough instrument to file down the cap of a tooth without compromising a tooth’s overall structure integrity. The technique worked like a charm, and Maynard soon found himself looking directly at the infected pulp of his patient’s still intact tooth. Further filing and cleaning/disinfecting of the affected area allowed the tooth to be cleaned and preserved. The hollowed tooth was then filled with gutta-percha and capped with lead to protect the interior of the tooth.

Modernizing The Technique

Obviously, lead is no longer used in the root canal process (giving patient’s lead poisoning instead of an infected tooth proved counterproductive in the long term), but modern dentists still use miniature files to remove affected areas of the tooth and excise infect pulp before disinfecting. And dentists do use gutta-percha to fill in root canals to this day, as well as adding a eugenol-based cement to strengthen the structurally compromised tooth. Fillings are now capped with an epoxy-resin or similar material, and the fillings look and function just like the regular cap of a tooth.


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