WHEN PLAGUED WITH A TOOTH WORM (as toothaches were called until the Middle Ages), one could do as the Romans did and attempt to fumigate the supposed maggot with henbane. One could pray to Apollonia, patron saint of dentistry, martyred in 248 when her jaws were broken and her teeth knocked out before she was burned to death. Or one could submit to the more certain solace of the dental drill.

The unprecedented level of dental care we now enjoy dates back 100 years to 1908, when most dental offices had electricity and plug-in electric drills finally became available. This turning point in dental technology had been, to say the least, a long time coming.

Remains found by archaeologists in Pakistan feature two molars punctured with perfect, tiny holes, suggesting that dental decay may have been treated as early as 9,000 years ago. In 1516, Giovanni da Vigo, a surgeon and dentist to Pope Julius II, mentioned using a drill to treat putrefied teeth. By 1728, Pierre Fauchard, father of modern dentistry, was using a bow drill, an unwieldy jeweler’s device operated by hand crank. And a significant breakthrough was Amos Westcott’s ring drill, designed in 1846. By attaching the drill to the index finger, the shaft could twirl between thumb and forefinger, allowing dentists for the first time to hold their drills with one hand.

But it was James Beall Morrison’s invention of the foot-powered drill, in 1871, that truly transformed the practice of dentistry. Most early drills were slow, cumbersome devices. Morrison’s, which reached a then-impressive 700 rpm, was driven by a belt controlled with a foot treadle (an innovation allegedly cribbed from the Singer sewing machine). Three years later, George F. Green introduced electricity to the device. Green’s electromagnetic-motor-powered drill was effective, but it was heavy and too expensive for most practices.

Forty-five years after the introduction of the plug-in drill, the modern air-turbine-engine dental drill was developed in 1953, increasing rpms to 50,000. Current drills can reach speeds of 800,000 rpm, but even the fastest are now looking a bit old-fashioned. Since 1991, lasers such as Millennium Dental Technologies’ six-watt PerioLase have been used to vaporize cavities with virtually no pain. Now Israeli company Tactile Technologies has developed a robotic dental drill to assist dentists in inserting implants. The company’s Website states, “Recent technological advances in composite materials, three-dimensional radiographic imaging and miniaturized robotic control are now changing the dental landscape.” Take that, tooth worms.