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.