According to this brief history of wisdom teeth removal, wisdom teeth may have been helpful in prehistoric times, but are now removed due to their general incompatibility with the human jaw. However, the first source only specifies that "tool extraction" originated in Europe in the 1800s, but does not mention the actual origins of the practice.

Wikipedia claims that routine performance of this operation was made possible in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, however it does not have any references for this fact specifically. In the next sentence, a text on dental surgical methods is referenced, but I could not find any content in it regarding the history of the procedure, or whether or not its ubiquity was novel at the time. @LangLangC provided an article about the history of the procedure, but I could not gain access to the full text, and even if I could I do not speak German. They also provided dissertation on the subject by the same author, but this has the same issues.

So when did the practice of removing wisdom teeth become widespread? It seems reasonable to assume that its ubiquity was a result of advances in medical understand in the 19th century, but finding a reliable source that explicitly says this has proved difficult.

  • theconversation.com/… Suggests mid-20th century.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Feb 15, 2021 at 1:29
  • Your Wikipedia article cites this science communication article from OSU. It claims that molar impaction has become 10 times more common since the Industrial Revolution, which it attributes to the relative prevalence of soft food since then. Soft food apparently does not stimulate jaw growth. As a result you would not expect impacted wisdom teeth to be a widespread problem before ca. 1850-1950 CE.
    – 0range
    Commented Feb 17, 2021 at 14:52
  • 3
    @0range But that's mythical, as since Erectus times this change is underway, the oldest clearly impacted molar making trouble on record 15000 years old and just 'blaming industrialisation' as for any alleged causes (cooking things into soft mush is old?) not an answer to 'when more or less routine prophylactic removal started', a procedure in most cases deemed superfluous, costly, dangerous today. Discussions about pro/con for this already widespread tech to be found in old dentistry texts from 1800s, still unresolved belief-system, but '~1950' is way too late… Commented Feb 17, 2021 at 16:39

2 Answers 2


TL;DR: Extraction of wisdom teeth, also known as third molars or dentes sapientiæ, is documented as early as 1803.

A search of MEDLINE for the MeSH term "Molar, Third" plus text strings "extraction" and "history" yielded 48 documents, of which one seems directly relevant.

  • Klein, C., & Lorber, C. G. (1995). Die Entwicklung der operativen Weisheitszahnentfernung [Historical development of surgical wisdom tooth extraction]. Fortschritte Der Kiefer- Und Gesichtschirurgie, 40, 113–116.

I don't seem to have access to this journal, but the English language abstract of the article reads:

Surgical removal of the wisdom teeth is a routine procedure nowadays. Only at the end of the nineteenth century the use of local anesthesia together with the development of radiology led to the establishment of surgical dentistry. Especially the technique of removal of the lower third molar was totally changed and modified many times, depending on the position of the wisdom teeth. First hand instruments were used; later, mechanical devices for bone resection and tooth splitting were employed. Since the 1950s, highly dangerous infections have become rare, thanks to the use of antibiotics. Many publications concerning incision procedure, bone resection and tooth splitting marked the following years.

Looking at related articles yields a couple more possibilities, which I also don't have access to.

  • Fukuda K, Endo N, Aoya T, Tsubakimoto M. (1983). [Surgical management in dentistry (2). Management of mandibular impacted wisdom teeth]. Rinshō Shika [Clinical Dentistry], 308, 12-25.
  • Schatz JP, Joho JP. (1984). [Preventive extraction of lower wisdom teeth: review of the literature (I)] Medecine et Hygiene, 42, 2285-2286.

From the Klein & Lorber (1995) article abstract, it seems that "end of the nineteenth century" is the answer.

Archive.org has a copy of an 1889 book that contains a few paragraphs about the third molar that mention extraction.

The upper third molar is frequently out of position, projecting toward the cheek and proving a source of constant irritation. In such cases it should be extracted.
The lower third molar frequently fails of complete eruption from lack of room at the angle of the jaw, and in consequence of this the overlying tissue is kept in a state of constant irritation, and often serious inflammations result. In these cases, if either the first or the second molar is much decayed and the third molar is of good quality, extract the first or second, and thus allow the third to move forward and relieve the pressure, otherwise extract the third molar.

  • Fillebrown, T. (1889). A text-book of operative dentistry. P. Blakiston, Son & Co.

You may also find interesting this 1926 book that appears to be an 800-page canonical reference on extraction of impacted third molars. The pictures of the instruments in chapter XIV are especially fascinating. Unfortunately, a cursory examination of this book does not reveal a date or period in history when these techniques were developed.

  • Winter, G. B. (1926). Principles of exodontia as applied to the impacted mandibular third molar. American Medical Book Company.

In a 1771 book by John Hunter, it is explained that the third molar is also known as Dens Sapientiæ, Latin for "tooth of wisdom." This author mentions extraction of teeth, but not specifically of the wisdom teeth.

  • Hunter, J. (1771). The natural history of human teeth: Explaining their structure, use, formation, growth, and diseases. J. Johnson.

One 1726 book explains why the teeth are called "wisdom teeth". This book also mentions extraction of teeth, but primarily for cases of decay.

Dentes, the teeth seldom exceed sixteen in each jaw; the four first in each are called Incisores, the two next Canini, and all the rest Molares; the four last of these are named Dentes Sapientiae, because they do not appear till men arrive at years of discretion.

  • Cheselden, W. (1726). The anatomy of the human body. W. Bowyer.

Finally, an 1803 book by Joseph Fox, a surgeon who was a contemporary of Hunter's, specifically mentions extraction of the wisdom teeth. This is the earliest reference to extracting wisdom teeth that I have found so far:

[An improvement to an instrument called the German key] was made for the purpose of fixing a claw, in an advanced position, beyond the bolster, which was found extremely useful in the extraction of the dentes sapientiæ.

  • Fox, J. (1803). The natural history of the human teeth, including a particular elucidation of the changes which take place during the second dentition .... Thomas Cox.
  • Very nice approach so far. However, the history of nitrous and Wells/Morton suggests that ~1850s is an important step missing (as well as foremost cocaine/novocaine). If you make a cleaner diff and rel between the relevant vocabs: started, routine, prophylactic, and mass/widespread; then it'd be even better. Commented Feb 24, 2021 at 8:56
  • Have a look at A History of Dentistry from the most Ancient Times until the end of the Eighteenth Century, specifically figure 97 Pelicans for extracting wisdom teeth (taken from an Antonio Campani treatise of 1786). Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 1:29

Wikipedia is not the only site saying that it started in the 20th or 19th century. Other websites such as The Conversation give similar dates.

"Our grandparents and parents tell stories about the time when kids routinely had their tonsils removed. But for people born in the 1960s and later, their routine surgery stories are about having third molars, a.k.a. wisdom teeth, taken out." (Source: The Conversation)

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