Reeking from the jaw of the living animal

Transplantation of a sheep's toothThe 1843 volume of The Dublin Journal of Medical Science contains this gem from Mr Robert Twiss, a surgeon from Kerry. Though it’s only a short report it made quite a stir on publication, and was still being cited in textbooks of dentistry many decades later. The first sentence is nothing if not arresting: 

On the 24th of April, 1841, after having extracted the remainder of a broken front tooth from Maria Godfrey, a young lady, aged twelve years, I put in its place the front tooth of a yearling sheep, reeking from the jaw of the living animal, having previously shortened its root about a quarter of an inch.

I suspect that ‘reeking’ does not here mean ‘foul-smelling’, but is used in the older sense of ‘emanating’.

After the first week, during which there was little promised success (the tooth being much too small for the space. and the child not attending to directions), it became more and more firm, with every indication of its having taken root; and by accurate measurement I find it has enlarged, but not so much as it would have done in its pristine state, a circumstance observed in transplanted trees.

In case you’re worried that a sheep might not be the most, well, hygienic source for a transplanted tooth, here are some comforting words from the surgeon:

Mr. Twiss was led to select the sheep, on account of the extreme cleanliness of this animal, and the beauty and aptitude of the teeth for the purpose.

Evidently this particular sheep liked to take a shower twice a day and was punctilious about brushing its teeth.

He recommends that teeth be taken only from sheep two or three years old, as at that age they are about the size of adult human teeth, and they are more likely to grow when transplanted. The root, he observes, may be shortened or pared, if necessary, to fit in its new situation. The new tooth may be kept in situ by waxed silk ligatures.

For some strange reason this method did not catch on.

Though there few other cases on record in which a tooth from another species was transplanted into a human jaw, tooth transplantation between humans was commonly practised for some years.  In his Treatise on the Natural History and Diseases of the Human Teeth (1771) the great surgeon John Hunter gives detailed instructions for this operation, writing that

The insertion of a dead tooth has been recommended, and I have known them continue for many years. If this always succeeded as well as the living I would give it the preference, because we are much more certain of matching them, as a much greater variety of dead teeth can be procured than of living ones. 

Though there’s no record of Hunter ever having used a non-human tooth, he did perform one interesting and related experiment. He was curious to know whether a tooth remained alive after transplantation – whether it would be nourished by the blood vessels of its new host.

I took a sound tooth from a person’s head; then made a pretty deep wound with a lancet into the thick part of a cock’s comb, and pressed the fang of the tooth into this wound, and fastened it with threads passed through other parts of the comb. The cock was killed some months after, and I injected the head with a very minute injection; the comb was then taken off and put into a weak acid, and the tooth being softened by this means, I slit the comb and tooth into two halves, in the long direction of the tooth. I found the vessels of the tooth well injected, and also observed that the external surface of the tooth adhered everywhere to the comb by vessels, similar to the union of a tooth with the gum and sockets.

This remarkable artefact is preserved in the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons. You can see images of it on their website.

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