Update: this story will be featured in my new book, The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth and Other Curiosities from the History of Medicine, available in late 2018. For more information click here.
Here’s an engaging little mystery which first appeared in the pages of Dental Cosmos – the first American scholarly journal for dentists – in 1860. I love the title; imagine going into the newsagent and asking for “a pint of milk and Dental Cosmos, please”. W.H. Atkinson, a dentist in Pennsylvania, wrote to the journal to report three strange and similar cases which he had encountered over a period of forty years in practice.
The first of his subjects was the Reverend D.A., who lived in Springfield in Mercer County, Pennsylvania. In the late summer of 1817 he suddenly developed an excruciating toothache.
At nine o’clock a.m. of August thirty-first, the right superior canine or first bicuspid commenced aching, increasing in intensity to such a degree as to set him wild. During his agonies he ran about here and there, in the vain endeavor to obtain some respite; at one time boring his head on the ground like an enraged animal, at another poking it under the corner of the fence, and again going to the spring and plunging his head to the bottom in the cold water; which so alarmed his family that they led him to the cabin and did all in their power to compose him.
This is not terribly dignified behaviour for a clergyman. That toothache must have hurt a lot.
But all proved unavailing, till, at nine o’clock the next morning, as he was walking the floor in wild delirium, all at once a sharp crack, like a pistol shot, bursting his tooth to fragments, gave him instant relief. At this moment he turned to his wife, and said, “My pain is all gone.”
To be fair, so was his tooth.
He went to bed, and slept soundly all that day and most of the succeeding night; after which he was rational and well. He is living at this present time, and has vivid recollection of the distressing incident.
The second case took place 13 years later; the sufferer this time was a Mrs Letitia D, from Mercer County in Pennsylvania:
This case cannot be so clearly or fully traced as case first, but was much like it, terminating by bursting with report, giving immediate relief. The tooth subsequently crumbled to pieces; it was a superior molar.
A final example occurred in 1855, also in Mercer County (something in the water?), to a Mrs Anna P. A.:
This had a simple antero-posterior split, caused by the intense pain and pressure of the inflamed pulp. A sudden, sharp report, and instant relief, as in the other cases, occurred in the left superior canine. She is living and healthy, the mother of a family of fine girls.
Though it’s good to know that she’s well and has a family, I doubt many readers would have been expecting a minor dental incident to be life-threatening.
To my mind, the mineral, the plant, and the animal, properly interrogated, teach us the unadulterated truth. These bursting teeth, under the immense pressure of accumulated force, teach many valuable lessons: philosophical to those able to grasp them, and practical to him who is quiet and willing to hear “their voice;” but to the stubborn and self-sufficient, only lessons of blank astonishment and wonder.
Hold on, doc, we’re talking about exploding teeth here, not cosmic mysteries.
He who proposes to avail himself of the philosophy of dynamics, here asks, How was this force locally generated ? and gets the response, By the increased amount of free caloric expanding the soft constituents of the pulp; or by the disintegration of molecules or cells passing through chemical changes, generating those little fellows, that always try to get as far away from each other as possible, called “gaseous particles,” in which effort the force is produced locally, and must find vent even at the upheaving of almost infinite weights or removing of immense opposing strength.
Blimey, what a lot of verbiage. I think our good dentist is trying to suggest that the explosion was caused by a build-up of gas inside the tooth, perhaps occasioned by decay. The rest of the article – it continues in this vein for several paragraphs – is too tedious to quote.
So what is the explanation for this strange phenomenon? Nobody knows. A similar case was reported in the British Dental Journal in 1965. It prompted a lively correspondence, which offered several theories but no definitive answers. The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth remains unsolved.