by Andrew I Spielman

In this segment, we will delve into a comprehensive exploration of entities that historically served functions akin to modern dental societies but were not exclusively focused on dentistry as it exists today. These entities encompass a diverse range of alternative titles, including guild, college, fellowship, order, brotherhood, company, or association. The overarching objective of these guilds, fellowships, or societies was to advance the economic interests of their members, offer protection and mutual assistance, facilitate the exchange of information, and foster collective objectives.

One of the oldest form of fraternal organizations was in Ancient Greece, the Asclepiades. They emerged as an organization comprising healers who worshipped Asclepius, the God of Healing. These healers resided in temples dedicated to healing, known as Asclepieia (Asclepieion, singular).

Evidence suggests the presence of trade associations in Ancient Rome known as Collegia. These institutions are believed to have been established either by Numa Pompilius (c. 753–673 BCE), the second king of Rome, or by Servius Tullius (ruled between 578–535 BCE), an Etruscan ruler from the 6th century BCE. The purpose of Collegia was to organize the populace into small units based on their trade or profession, wealth, and participation in religious rituals. This arrangement aimed to strengthen social cohesion and eliminate separatist tendencies among the Sabine population (1). With the decline of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century A.D., these guilds ceased to exist.

One of the earliest medieval associations in the history of dentistry was the Guild for Surgeons, established in 1258 (2), and the Barbers’ Guild (Corporazione dei Barbieri), established in 1271 by the Venetian Republic. Independent Barber’s Guilds (Societates Barberiorum) also emerged in cities like Bologna in 1288 (3) and in Florence in 1296.

In England, The Worshipful Company of Barbers was founded in 1308, focusing on the welfare and interests of barbers and surgeons. It played a role in charitable activities and civic life in London. The first mention of a tooth drawer (touzdrawere), Peter de London, in the guild’s documents, dates back to 1320, followed by the appearance of the first surgeon in 1322.

In France, King Philippe the Fair established the College of St Côme (Collège or Confrérie de Saint Côme) in 1311. Named after the patron saints of medicine, Saints Cosmas and Damian, it aimed to benefit surgeons of the long robe and distinguish them from lower-ranking barbers or surgeons of the short robe.

The Fellowship of Surgeons was established in England in 1368, parallel to the barber-surgeon’s dominance in extractions. They had distinctive embroidered livery gowns and hoods (see Figure 1). In 1540, under an Act of the British Parliament during Henry VIII’s rule, The Fellowship of Surgeons and The Company of Barbers merged. However, in 1745, King George II split the Guild of Surgeons into separate Companies of Barbers and Surgeons. The Company of Surgeons eventually evolved into the Royal College of Surgeons in 1800, focusing on supervising surgical practices and protecting members.

Figure 1. Henry VIII handing over a charter to Thomas Vicary, commemorating the joining of the Barbers and Surgeons Guilds. Painting by Hans Holbein the Younger (Image in Wikimedia Commons).

From 1730 in Venice, and 1731 in France, there were separations between barbers and surgeons. Barbers were prohibited from practicing surgery in France under Louis XV’s ordinance, leading to the dissolution of the College of St Côme and the establishment of the Academie Royal de Chirurgie.

Similar Barber’s Guilds existed elsewhere in Europe. For example in Sweden, in 1689, the guild introduced special exams for competence of its members. It was later renamed the Society of Surgeons with the approval of the King of Sweden (4).

The first dental society the world in its current meaning was established on December 6, 1834; The Society of Surgeon Dentists of the City and State of New York (5, 6). Fifteen prominent New York dentists participated. However, the Society dissolved in 1856, due to a contentious requirement mandating members to abstain from using amalgam — a conflict known as The Amalgam War. 

With the emergence of dentistry as a specialized profession, particularly in the United States, the focus of dental societies became more defined. This transformation occurred against the backdrop of the economic recession triggered by bank failures in 1836, prompting many individuals to seek refuge in the unregulated field of dentistry. Consequently, the number of practicing dentists in the US doubled in the two years following 1836.  In 1837, amidst this burgeoning landscape, the New York Society of Dental Surgeons was established. Shortly thereafter, the Dental Association of Western New York was formed as an auxiliary to this society, underscoring the rapid expansion of dentistry as a profession. Eleven members signed the resolution to create the society. (Figure 2). 

Figure 2. Resolution to create the Dental Association of Western New York. (From ref. 7).

On August 18, 1840, in New York, Horace Hayden and Chapin Harris, cofounders of the first dental college in the world, in Baltimore, along with forty prominent dentists of the era, founded the American Society of Dental Surgeons, marking a significant milestone. Harris assumed the role of its inaugural president. This society laid the groundwork for what would later become the American Dental Association (ADA), officially adopting that name in 1859.  Between 1840 and 1875, a remarkable eighty-one dental societies were established across the United States, although many of them faced challenges and eventually ceased operations (Figures 3 and 4). Canada saw the creation of the Royal College of Dental Surgeons of Ontario in 1868, reflecting the global trend towards professionalization and institutionalization of dentistry.

Figure 3. Between 1840 and 1875, eighty-one dental societies were established across the United States.

In France, on May 7, 1845, Société de Chirurgie Dentaire de Paris was established in response to the French Supreme Court decision of February 23, 1827, to allow anyone to practice dentistry (8). One of its founding members was Joseph Audibran (1789-1865). The Society was to protect the profession from unlicensed practitioners.

In England, in 1856, the Odontological Society of London was established under the leadership of Sir John Tomes (1815-1895), marking a pivotal moment in the advancement of British dentistry. Concurrently, in the same year, The British Journal of Dental Science made its debut, providing a platform for scholarly discourse and dissemination of knowledge within the dental community.

Germany witnessed the formation of its first dental association, the Zahnärtzlicher Verein in Hamburg, in 1857, signaling the growing recognition of dentistry as a distinct profession. Just two years later, in 1859, the national Centralverein deutscher Zahnärzte was established, further solidifying the organizational structure of the dental profession in Germany (9).  The first Italian dental association, la Societa Odontologica Italiana, was established in 1876 in Torino with 30 attending, followed closely by the founding of the British Dental Association in 1880, underscoring the international expansion of organized dentistry during this period.

Figure 4.  The first twenty US dental associations.

*For purposes of this study the start dates for individual specialties are considered the year when the respective specialty societies were established. For General Dentistry, we will consider the ADA, as the first national society ** ADA recognized Endodontics as a specialty in 1963 & Oral Medicine in 2020.

Figure 5. The US societies linked to ADA-recognized (R) and ADA-unrecognized (U) dental specialties. The date of establishment of individual specialties is in parenthesis.

Figure 6. Comparison of dental specialties among ten countries/geographic areas.

Figure 7. Year when dental and specialty societies were established in eight countries. * First society, not first “national” dental society. 1. Gelbier 1994; 2. Scully et al. 2016.

Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, the landscape of dental societies has experienced a remarkable proliferation. The World Dental Federation, FDI, currently boasts 200 national member associations from 130 countries. Presently, nearly every country where dentistry and its various specialties are practiced boasts a national dental or specialty society (Figures 5 and 6).

  1. Gabba p.81-86.
  2. Fox p.1271.
  3. Duranti p.253-264.
  4. Himmelmann p.69-87.
  5. Chernin (a) p.3-14.
  6. Chernin (b) p.45-67.
  7. Anonymous p.17.
  8. Audibran, 1847, p.141
  9. Petermann p.207-8.

References for Dental Professional Associations

Anonymous (1839). Doings of Dental Conventions. American Journal of Dental Science Vol 1-2:17. United States: William Gird Beecroft. (Creation of the first dental society, Society of the Surgeon Dentists of the City of New York, and Dental Association of Western New York, 1837 and 1839, respectively). 

Audibran, Joseph (1847). Fondation de la société de chirurgie dentaire de Paris : Brochure d’un intérêt général, p.141.

Chernin, David (2009a). The beginnings of professional dental institutions in 19th century America. J. Hist. Dent. 57(1):3-14;   

Chernin, David (2009b). The evolution of the American Dentist. Part I-Amalgamation: 1776-1840. J. Hist. Dent. 57(2):45-67.

Duranti, Thommaso (2021). Lavoro, igiene, salute. Studio preliminare sull’arte dei barbieri di Bologna (ante 1348). In: A banchetto con gli amici : scritti per Massimo Montanari. p.253-264. Viella: Roma, Italia.

Fox, Daniel M. (1997). Regulating the Medical Profession, IN: Companion Encyclopedia of the History of Medicine, Vol. 2, Eds. Bynum WF, and Porter R, eds., Routledge, London, New York, p. 1271.

Gabba, Emilio (1984). “The Collegia of Numa: Problems of Method and Political Ideas.” The Journal of Roman Studies, vol. 74, pp. 81–86. JSTOR,

Gelbier, S. (1994). History of the International Association of Pediatric Dentistry. Part 1. National Associations and Societies of Dentistry for Children. Intl J Ped Dent. 4:281-287

Himmelmann, L. (2007). Från barberare till chirurgie magister -steg på vägen mot en läkarprofession [From barber to surgeon- the process of professionalization]. Sven Med Tidskr. 11(1):69-87

Petermann, Adolf. (1884). Des Deutschen Reiches zahnarztlichen Vereine. Deutsche Monatsschrift fur Zahnheilkunde, 2: 207-8.

Scully C, Miller C, Aguirre-Urizar JM, Bagan JV et al. (2016). Oral Medicine (Stomathology) across the Globe: Birth, growth, and future. Oral Surg, Oral Med, Oral Path, & Oral Radiol. (121)2:149-157.e5 DOI: 10.1016/j.oooo.2015.10.009