Sun. Oct 2nd, 2022
A patient receiving dental treatment, circa 1892. There were several cases of:
enlarge A patient receiving dental treatment, circa 1892. There were several cases of “teeth explosion” in the 1800s that remain unexplained to this day.

Oxford Science Archives/Getty Images

While researching his 2017 book on the history of cardiac surgery, medical journalist Thomas Morris went through hundreds of 19th century magazines. One day, a headline on the page opposite the one he was reading caught his eye: “sudden bulge of the entire bowel into the scrotum.” It was a bizarre case from the 1820s in which a worker was run over by a stone-laden cart. The resulting hernia forced his intestines into his scrotum, and yet the worker made a full recovery.

Once he got over his initial amused aversion, Morris was struck by the sheer ingenuity the doctors displayed in treating the man’s condition. And he found plenty of other similar bizarre cases as he continued his research, in which people survived truly horrific injuries — a testament to the human body’s resilience. “Physicians, even if they had less than a tenth of the knowledge we have today in treating major trauma, can still come up with innovative and ingenious solutions to acute problems,” he said.

Many of the most interesting medical cases Morris discovered are contained in his hugely entertaining compendium of medical oddities, The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth and Other Curiosities from the History of Medicine† Regular readers of his blog (slogan: “make you grateful for modern medicine”) will enjoy stories of a sword-swallowing sailor, a soldier who removed his own bladder stone, a man with flammable belching, a woman who peed through her nose, and a boy who inhaled a bird’s larynx and began to honk like a goose. All are delivered in elegant prose, punctuated by the author’s signature dry humor. Morris has so far collected about 500 of these often breathtaking cases and only included about 70 in the book. A sequel (or two) is therefore not excluded.

Thomas Morris

The titular case involves numerous 19th-century cases of people experiencing an increasingly painful toothache followed by a sudden crack, similar to a gunshot, as the tooth exploded, providing instant relief. The outburst was enough to nearly knock a young woman over, leaving her partially deafening for several weeks afterwards.

Why did the teeth explode? Several theories have been proposed, such as tooth decay that caused a buildup of gas leading to fracture of the tooth, perhaps from the chemicals used to make early fillings. But there is no record of any of the patients having exploding teeth that had fillings. The cause remains a mystery to this day, and according to Morris, not a case has been reported in the medical journals since the 1920s.

One of the most memorable cases Morris describes involves a 25-year-old man in San Francisco who was seriously injured in 1858 when an old shotgun exploded in his grip, driving a large lump of iron into his chest. A celebrated surgeon of the era, Elias Samuel Cooper, did not have access to modern technologies such as X-rays to help him locate the metal that had lodged just below the man’s heart.

So he opened the rib cage and just started rumbling. Initially, he did this without anesthetic, but when it came time to reach into the chest cavity and remove the snail, Cooper graciously gave some (probably ether). “The idea of ​​a surgeon putting his hand under a patient’s heart in 1858 — I had never come across anything like it in the many years of research into cardiac surgery,” Morris said.

“There’s an amazing propensity for people to do really stupid things by sticking strange objects in their orifices.”

An entire section is devoted to treating various objects inserted into people’s orifices — such as the 16th-century monk who inserted a perfume bottle into his rectum, presumably to “relieve the cholic,” the monk claimed. “There’s an amazing constant tendency in the ability of people, especially young men, to do really stupid things by sticking foreign objects in their orifices,” Morris said. “There are entire treatises on foreign bodies from the 19th century and earlier, with hundreds if not thousands of cases.” Modern emergency rooms see things like this regularly, so it’s clear that human nature hasn’t changed much in the following centuries.

Over the decades of the 1800s, surgeons became more and more daring in terms of what they thought they could do for their patients, until several high-profile disasters sparked a wave of ethical soul-searching to balance innovation with the needs of patients . One of the most notable: a Chinese man with a severely distended scrotum who opted for surgery, although the condition did not appear to be life-threatening. He spent hours in agony on the table, without anesthesia (and a room full of onlookers), eventually dying of shock and blood loss.

“That operation subsequently led to an exchange of letters in the trade journals,” said Morris. “There were some surgeons who were absolutely damning and considered it a terrible dereliction of duty to subject this man to surgery.”

While there is a lot of humor and witty asides in the book, Morris is adamant that his intent was never simply to make fun of the doctors who practiced in these earlier eras. “I think it’s all too easy to laugh at the idea that they used to use leeches or all these poisons.” [things like] belladonna and deadly nightshade,” he said. Whatever a doctor did in 1780 was part of a system of thought that they had been taught by their teachers and passed on to their students. You’re talking about people who had less than a tenth of our understanding of microbiology or disease mechanisms. I think it’s wrong to judge historically without taking that context into account.”

Thanks to Penguin/Random House.

By akfire1

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