The tooth ant

curious case in dentistryIn June 1873 a respectable American medical journal, The Clinic, published a ‘news in brief’ story which had been culled from a local newspaper in New Jersey. It was evidently reproduced more for entertainment than for its scientific value, since it was prefaced by the ironic comment ‘We give the following for what it is worth.’  Its veracity is dubious, given that it is based on a the patient’s own testimony rather than that of a medical professional. The Clinic gave only an abbreviated form of the story; this is the full version, as originally printed in several local and national newspapers:

A citizen of New Brunswick who had been afflicted with a painful toothache for a long time, concluded at length to have the tooth pulled. It had decayed somewhat, and a very small hole was visible at one point. This was extremely minute, and nothing less than a very sharp vision could plainly discern it. He called at a dentist’s office, and had the tooth extracted, rolled it in a sheet of note paper and took it home with him. The pain had been so intense and protracted that he concluded to examine very thoroughly the tooth which had annoyed him so much.

The patient could see nothing particularly unusual about the tooth, except for a tiny hole so minute ‘that it would not admit the insertion of a delicate needle’. He decided to investigate further:

He finally took a hammer, struck lightly with it, and the tooth was broken— but what a sight! it was perfectly hollow, and snugly ensconced within it was a nondescript bug much larger than an ordinary ant. Upon exposure to the light it took to its legs (six in number) and ran across the table with great speed.

Yikes!

It seemed to have no eyes, for it ran against every object that he placed before it. At length it ran off the table, falling to the carpet, and in trying to recover it he accidentally stepped upon and killed it. He describes it as being a most wonderful looking object, and differing essentially from anything he had ever before seen or heard of.

So a mysterious insect, possibly new to science. But however could it have got there?

He is confident that it could not have made its way into the tooth, and feels sure that it was generated in the decaying dentine substance. He presumes that small atoms of food may have made their way through the perforation and served to furnish sustenance to the queer looking object. He feels the utmost certainty that this is an indubitable instance of spontaneous generation.

Spontaneous generation was a venerable doctrine dating back at least to the time of Aristotle, who believed that worms (for instance) did noot reproduce but spontaneously came into existence in suitable surroundings, e.g. mud. Even some time after the Renaissance, crocodiles, snakes and eels were believed to be the result of spontaneous generation. But by 1873 it’s clear that more or less anybody with a scientific education would have treated this claim of a spontaneously generated tooth ant with derision.

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