‘Exploding Teeth’ Nothing Short of En(gross)ing

The Wall Street Journal‘s book reviewer called The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth and Other Medical Curiosities from the History of Medicine “a delightful romp,” according to the blurb on the back of the book. While I definitely enjoyed this compendium of bizarre medical cases from a time before germs were a thing anyone knew about, I’m not sure I’d call it “delightful” or a “romp.” “The kind of thing you only talk about at certain kinds of parties with certain kinds of people,” maybe, or “the kind of thing you talk about with just anyone if you want to ruin a party.”

Then again, maybe “delightful” is in the eye of the beholder.

A picture of the cover of The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth, featuring an illustration of an old-fashioned dental drill in a partial picture of a mouth.
Spoiler: the titular story probably didn’t happen, Morris says—but it sounds cool.

The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth is a collection of medical puzzles from the North America and Europe of yesteryear. Author Thomas Morris groups these head-scratchers into groups, including one section of cases that are almost certainly fake. There are people who have gotten themselves in real pickles, which involves a lot of people sticking things up orifices not designed to handle those particular instruments (it’s nice to know that as much as the world has changed over the centuries, people have remained the same in the sticking-things-up-orifices sense of things). Another section details bizarre illnesses, while another covers extremely sketchy treatments for this ailment or another (mercury cigarettes, anyone?). Near the end, one woman dies of suspected spontaneous combustion (it isn’t) and another purportedly from eating too many cucumbers (or from fluid around the heart). The section on horrifying operations reminded me of The Butchering Art, in the best way that sort of thing can be remembered.

Through it all, I found myself feeling both disbelief and wonder at how far we’ve come in medicine since those bygone days of letting blood and port-wine enemas. 

And disgust, and fascination, and horror, and occasionally schadenfreude. There is, in truth, something delightful in the way Morris detangles these accounts of old medical cases for modern eyes. He mainly lets many of the accounts speak for themselves, excerpting (and sometimes translating) the events as published in various medical journals of varying quality while standing by for explanations and witty quips. As a reader, you quickly do learn that a cicatrix is just an old-timey word for scar, but there are plenty of other terms that benefit from a footnoted explanation. Morris has plenty to quip about. At a doctor’s theories of how to resuscitate a patient in an emergency situation that include blowing second-hand tobacco smoke into a patient’s mouth and up their anus, Morris says, “And why stop at blowing tobacco smoke into the patient’s lungs? Two orifices are better than one.” Later, as a doctor writes about his surprise at examining a patient and finding he had two penises (or, rather, had split his own penis in two lengthwise—long story), Morris adds, “Well, yes, I imagine that he might have been surprised.”

Are the quips necessary? No, and yes. So much of what Morris has gathered for this book is so bizarre that it is helpful to have a sort of Statler and Waldorf in the wings to cut through the gruesome or gross. It also does dilute the stodginess of the old style of writing, helping speed along reading considerably. I appreciate that he does leave so much of the original writing intact, though, as it lends credence and character I think would be lacking were he to only summarize for the audience. I also appreciate when he takes clues from those original accounts, when the original writer included enough of them, to guess at what a modern medical professional would diagnose—and how different treatment might look in a time and place with advanced care available.

A photo of Statler and Waldorf, the two grumpy Muppets who heckle the rest of the gang.
“This case is terrible!” “Terrible!” “Let’s read the next!”

As this is a collection of accounts, there is no narrative throughline to propel reading, something I think can work for the benefit or detriment of The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth, depending on the reader. Again, Morris’ quips help speed things up considerably, and each section itself is a collection of cases, so this is a great book to have on hand in places where you want to read something interesting but don’t want to have to commit to a story or keeping track of details. A bedside table book, for example, or something to stash in that bathroom cupboard closest to the toilet. Then again, the lack of that narrative thread means there’s no unanswered question demanding you pick it up again after setting it down.

Is The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth a “delightful romp”? No. But it is fascinating. It is the kind of thing I kept wanting to share with every new anecdote (until my partner begged me to stop, please stop, why are you telling me this). It’s something I wasn’t necessarily unable to put down, but that I was sad to see end. If you’re made of stern enough stuff, this might be the mystery for you.

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