Key moments in dental assisting history

books on a shelf that spell out the word "history"

This year, DANB is commemorating the 75th anniversary of Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) certification and celebrating everyone who has held this credential through the years. Reaching such a significant milestone is a cause not only for celebration but also reflection. Here, we look back at some key moments in history that have led to dental assistants becoming invaluable, respected members of every dental practice.

The first dental assistant

Humans have practiced dental care in various forms for centuries. Ancient Egyptians used toothpaste, and the toothbrush can be traced back as early as the seventh century to the Tang Dynasty in China. The first dental school opened in 1828 in Ohio. But the first known dental assistant didn’t emerge until 1885 when C. Edmund Kells, a dentist in New Orleans, hired his wife, Florence, to help at his practice. He later hired Malvina Cueria as his first full-time dental assistant.

Becoming a valued profession

In the early 1900s, dental assistants became more common in practices as their value was recognized. To help unify dental assistants across the United States and promote professional development, Juliette Southard founded the American Dental Assistants Association (ADAA) in 1924. For the last century, the ADAA has elevated the role of the dental assistant in numerous ways. The organization provides educational and training opportunities for career development, creates guidelines for professional excellence, offers networking opportunities, and advocates for the importance of dental assistants in the field of dentistry.

CDA certification is created

The ADAA was instrumental in another key area of dental assisting history: creating the Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) certification. In 1948, the ADAA founded the Certifying Board of the American Dental Assistants Association and began issuing CDA certifications. Since then, earning and maintaining CDA certification has been a source of pride among dental assistants, signifying their commitment to lifelong learning.

In 1978, the Certifying Board of the ADAA became an independent organization and two years later changed its name to the Dental Assisting National Board. Today, DANB offers seven national certifications:

  • National Entry Level Dental Assistant (NELDA)
  • Certified Dental Assistant (CDA)
  • Certified Orthodontic Assistant (COA)
  • Certified Preventive Functions Dental Assistant (CPFDA)
  • Certified Restorative Functions Dental Assistant (CRFDA)
  • Certified in Dental Infection Prevention and Control (CDIPC)
  • Dental Industry Specialist in Infection Prevention and Control (DISIPC)

Expanded functions take off

In the mid-1900s, dental technology was developing rapidly and the role of the dental assistant continued to evolve. The use of radiography was a major development in the start of the 20th century, and as it became safer and better understood, more practices began performing dental x-rays. This helped open the door for dental assistants to perform additional duties. Today, all states allow dental assistants to take x-rays if they meet certain qualifications.

As dental assistants continue to show what they’re capable of, their responsibilities have grown. Those with expanded functions training can now perform many tasks that dentists used to do themselves, such as taking impressions, performing coronal polishing, and applying fluoride, depending on the state they work in.

A bright future

As we reflect on the past, we’re reminded that the future is also bright. States continue to look at expanding dental assistant functions, and new technologies are opening doors for additional training and learning opportunities. Many states are looking to expand access to care for underserved populations, and dental assistants will play a critical role in helping patients get the treatment they need. Dental assistants have always been vital to their practices, and that has never been truer than it is today.

Learn more: Why dental assisting is more than just a job