The concept of dental implants being used to replace damaged or missing teeth for aesthetic and practical purposes has been in existence for thousands of years. In ancient China, for example, there have been human remains found dating back 4000 years with carved bamboo pegs tapped into the jawbone to replace missing teeth. There have also been ancient Egyptian remains found, dating back approximately 2000 years, with various forms of implanted teeth made out of precious metals, ivory or even transplanted from other humans.
Although the concept of dental implants has been around for millennia, none of them had the bone fusing properties that we see in todays implants. This is an extremely important feature of dental implants, known as osseointegration, because it allows for bone growth to fill the gaps in the jawbone left by missing or deteriorated teeth, strengthening the structure of the jawbone itself.
The Discovery of Osseointegration
Osseointegration occurs when an implant and the bone it is being implanted into fully fuse together, leaving no room for relative movement between the bone and the implant. This phenomena was first observed by researchers Bothe, Beaton and Davenport in 1940 where they noticed that over time, a titanium screw placed into rat femurs would become increasingly more difficult to remove until it was actually impossible without damaging the surrounding bone.
These findings were further observed in 1952 by Per-Ingvar Branemark, a Swedish physician and researcher, who was using a titanium implant chamber to study blood flow in rabbit bone. When it was time to remove the chambers from the rabbits bone, Branemark noticed that the titanium chamber had completely integrated with the surrounding bone making it impossible to remove. He quickly named this phenomena osseointegration and began studying its use in human applications.
Per-Ingvar Branemark: Inventor of Modern Day Dental Implants
After accidentally discovering osseointegration between titanium and animal bones, Branemark continued conducting studies on both animal and human subjects, concluding that this phenomena consistently occurs when using titanium. Branemark eventually began conducting these types of studies in the human mouth because it allowed for continued observations and, due to the high rate of people with missing teeth in society, it offered more volunteers for his studies.
In 1965, Branemark had his first human volunteer for dental implants, Gosta Larsson. Larsson was born with severe deformities in his chin and jaw which caused him to have missing and misaligned teeth. Branemark inserted four implants into Larsson’s mandible, which took 6 months to become osseointegrated with the jawbone. Once osseointegration was complete, Branemark attached crowns to the implants giving Larsson the teeth he had always wanted. These implants remained intact for 40 years until Larsson passed away in 2005.
Although it seems that osseointegration should have been accepted as the obvious answer to dental implants after Branemark’s studies, it took a few decades for the scientific community to acknowledge it as a viable option. Branemark was ridiculed for nearly 30 years by other dentists and scientists until the year 1982 at a conference held in Toronto where the global scientific community finally accepted his research. Using titanium implants which osseointegrate with human bone has since become the most accepted form of dental implant available.