Book Review: The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth

A slight warning: This book is not for the squeamish or those not really interested in medical oddities from before WWI.

Morris, Thomas. The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth: And Other Curiosities from the History of Medicine. (New York: Dutton/Penguin Books) 2018. E-Book.

The book is a collection of medical cases that Morris found while doing other research. He is not a physician, but a historian who got curious. All the accounts come from what were at the time reputable professional journals and personal accounts. Several, even at the time, were noted as being so strange that the editors were not entirely certain about them (such as the titular exploding teeth.)

The accounts are arranged by theme, not chronology. Morris includes some of the original typescripts and language, but also includes modern English. He also has footnotes on some Latin phrases and his own observations. In the e-book edition I got, these are not hot-linked. It didn’t bother me, because I could suss out the Latin, in part because of reading older medical texts for my own research.*

One of the themes that comes out in this book is that under the right circumstances, the human body is dang durable. The things people survived “back in the day”  before antibiotics, modern sanitation, and pain-fighters will make you wince, and marvel. For example, the young man who worked in a water-powered mill, and who got his sleeve caught in the rotating mechanism. It tore off his arm as far as the shoulder. Apparently, given that he didn’t die of blood-loss or shock, the severed vessels knotted in some way. He lived to a respectable old age. Sometimes you get the sense that the individual didn’t know he or she was supposed to die, so he didn’t. Alas, in other cases the germs or injury won.

Some sections sound terribly familiar today. “People putting things in places they shouldn’t” and “People eating things on a bet” have not gone away, although today there are ways to 1. see where the thing is and 2. extract it relatively safely. Then again, I agree with the theory that the first person to eat a raw oyster did it as a result of a wager, so I’m predisposed to believe that human nature has not changed much over the past multiple thousand years.

Part of the story is also about medicine before WWI. It was not truly “by guess and by gosh,” but some of the things physicians attempted are head shaking today. At the time, they made sense under the theories of humors and miasmas, or they seemed like the only option when matters turned desperate. Physicians often knew what the problem was, but especially with infections, the only hope was to let the pus and rotten matter out and hope for the best. When you’re talking about obstructions of the bowls, or infections of the uterus, there’s really no option at all. Not that it stopped people from trying.

This is one of those books that you can pick up, read a little, put down, and come back to without losing anything. The author’s tone is a little snarky in places, especially when he describes medicinal practices such as bleeding. Actually, bleeding and leeches are still used today to treat certain conditions such as disorders that create too many red blood cells, or after reattachment surgery in order to encourage the restoration of blood flow to the formerly-amputated part.

The book is not for the squeamish, but then neither was life before the 20th century. People had to have a lot stronger immune systems.** More people also survived with healed injuries and disfigurations than we see today, because plastic surgery didn’t exist. It’s not a true medical history, but more of a collection of case trivia from the Not-so-Good Olde Days. If you’re interested in things like that, it’s a fun*** book. If you need medical cases for a novel set in the Middle Ages or before modern surgery and germ theory, it’s got plenty.


*No, not the first textbook on sexual disorders, the one where all the “naughty bits” were in Latin.

**I had a fascinating discussion one drizzly early autumn day with a National Historic Monument ranger in Nebraska about medicine, water, and the immune systems of frontier troopers. As he put it, “They did drink they water, frequently, so of course they didn’t get sick.”

***Well, maybe not fun for most people, but I grew up with a medical historical trivia buff, so fun for Odds like me. You know, the sort of person who goes through museum portrait galleries playing “Identify the disease.” That tends to rub off in Odd ways.

19 thoughts on “Book Review: The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth

  1. Now I’m curious. “How/Why did the teeth explode”. Not that I’m curious enough to buy the book. 😉

      • Considering where people put firecrackers when making YouTube videos, I could make a guess about “exploding teeth”…

        “Yes, I will totally maim myself for life so random strangers might get a few yucks. Please subscribe to my channel and see what I do when I get out of the hospital!”

  2. I recently listened to this in audiobook version. Yeah, a bit snarky in places. And it was weird, but appreciated, to have a term used and then the translation differently voiced as audible parentheses. And, yes, there were definitely times to NOT listen… this is not good meal accompaniment.

  3. “One of the themes that comes out in this book is that under the right circumstances, the human body is dang durable.”

    Yes, as can be seen in many recent books about the American Civil War. Minie balls fired from standard-issue rifled muskets could produce HORRIBLE wounds. Some men took more than one such wound and still lived to tell about it.

    I find it interesting to look through certain books about plants, and see how different plants were used for different kinds of medicines. The Peterson series even has a field guide for “Medicinal Plants of North America.” And like you, I wonder how they learned some of that stuff.

    Also, I was just tickled pink the day I discovered that modern doctors still use leeches occasionally. I can’t explain why. Something about the combination of “we’re modern scientific doctors who rely on science to scientifically diagnose and treat medical problems, not like those [sneer] witch-doctors and herbalists of old” juxtaposed with “oh, we still use leeches sometimes” just jump-starts the old giggle box. Even funnier is the idea that there are people who breed leeches, so that the doctors know they’re using properly sterilized, disease-free bloodsucking worms.

    • I had the opportunity to read an old medical book that was a compilation of case histories from the Civil War. Lots of amputations. LOTS of amputations. And more amputations.

  4. I can think of a couple reasons for the title, one in particular after an emergency dental visit a number of years back. Not going into details for any of these; as Orvan would say, Moo. I’l pass, but wife and daughter (Muller Museum is their favorite) would enjoy it.

    If I recall from other reading, there were also 19th C. doctors who experimented with clean blowfly larva (maggots) to debride wounds and remove infected tissue. They were very circumspect in writing this up. Something else new and groundbreaking in today’s journals (hah). The traditional herbal lore included a number of specialized compound extracted and purified for use in cancer, heart disease, and other treatments. Great journal articles on these discoveries (again, hah). Given the amount of side effects, perhaps the compounded herbs had enough buffering to reduce this.

    Major advances are: antibiotics; imaging systems; improved surgical devices and techniques; and specialized medicines. IOW, thank you, physics and engineering (incl. systems analysis). Richard Feynman had a scathing critique of WW II medical research and how it almost tossed antibiotics like penicillin in the garbage, because those doctors were not mentally able to do basic research (Bacteria killed off by contaminant mold; what kind of mold? How much? What other kinds of bacteria?). Common sense and the ability to think through a problem are in short supply everywhere, though.

    • I admit curiosity, but can agree it might not be fit for public consumption, so to speak. And I suspect answer(s) the answers might be aids to fasting. And yes, this text is decidedly NOT for everyone. I had a good many “alright, that’s enough” moments with it – even NOT counting the preservation of the ability to enjoy a meal.

  5. I was once surprised to learn that bleeding was a relatively* effective means of treating Scarlet Fever. (And other fevers that would spike your temp high enough to cause brain damage.)
    *Much less likely to suffer a horrible death, and a significantly better chance of not dying at all (We’re going to miss antibiotics as they lose effectiveness.)

  6. I’m firmly in the Odds catagory. Two of my favorite books growing up (in the Readers Digest Condensed version) were Century of the Surgeon and Century of the Detective. Both feature stories of the work that led up to accepted practices of today. Some things are trivia, others are taken from reports of the day. The descriptions of the processes are suitably gory and the trivia can be fascinating.

    My parents had all the RDCBs from the 1950s through to the 1990s. I read my first Sci-fi book (A Call of Moondust by A C Clarke), my first Historical Western (Six Horse Hitch) and many other genres. Lots of people considered them low-brow, but they opened up the world for me.

    • I liked RDCBs too. They always had an interesting selection, and you always could look up the original at the library if you got interested enough.

      Plus illustrations. There were some gorgeous interior illustrations.

  7. I do not need anything else to read… I do NOT need anything else to read/research… I do not… 🙂

  8. Some sections sound terribly familiar today. “People putting things in places they shouldn’t” and “People eating things on a bet”

    “Wouldst thou holdeth mine mead?”

  9. “Exploding Teeth” …?
    Sounds like someone(s) fabricated replacement teeth from Cellulose Nitrate , as it was easily carved …
    Cellulose Nitrate is Guncotton, and I recall seeing mention that early replacement sets of ivory billiard balls were made of the material. Until someone stubbed his cigar on the cue ball after a victory …..

    One of my favorite finds, more than several years ago: The Book of Surprises, compiled by Rudolph Flesch … Painless Parker … Vilhjalmur Stefansson …
    A couple of depressing essays in there, but most were fun and educational!

  10. “The things people survived “back in the day” before antibiotics, modern sanitation, and pain-fighters will make you wince, and marvel. ”

    Phineas Gage comes to mind. heh.

  11. One of my favorite stories of Civil War medicine comes from a charming little pre WWI book called “Homeopathy in Medicine and Surgery” by a Dr. Spencer Carleton, who practiced in NYC.
    He relates the story of a young officer wounded at Cold Spring Harbor; one leg was shattered. Amputation was recommended, but the wounded officer wrote to his father, Adolph Lippe, a highly regarded homeopathic physician, who sent medicines. The younger Lippe (I can’t find my copy of the book, so I’m not sure which of Lippe’s sons it was) kept his leg, though it continued to throw off splinters of bone for the rest of the old soldier’s life. I believe he went on to practice medicine himself, and was a friend of Dr. Carleton. Dr. Carleton was an early adopter of the X-ray, and a reproduction of a radiograph of the involved leg is in the book. The tibia and fibula were bridged by a mass of bone at the site of the fractures.
    The younger Lippe’s will directed Dr Carleton to dissect his cadaver to obtain and then clean the leg in question for edifying exhibition of the powers of the vital force assisted by the well chosen homeopathic medicine.

    • One plus for early homeopathic medicine was that often, it did less harm than some of the then-trendy patent cures (or some amputations). A strong placebo effect is also good.

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