There are strange cases in medical literature where people do ridiculous things, and doctors who try to eliminate the resulting physical confusion. Take the case of a drinking game that went terribly wrong in 18th-century France: a man challenged his drinking buddies to swallow the part of his glass. He broke off a piece of the cup, chewed the pieces together and swallowed them. Needless to say, the doctors intervened to secure a place for the drunken night in the annals of history.
The true story of the glass-swallowing Lord is one of the dozens of bizarre cases that writer Thomas Morris has singled out for his new book, The Secret of Exploding Teeth and Other Curiosities in the History of Medicine . Morris describes the time-critical decision faced by eighteenth-century physicians caring for this misguided young man: if they let the jar leak out of his body in the usual way, he could bleed inside. But if they let him puke, the intestinal contractions around the broken glass could also punch holes in his stomach.
So the doctors fed this man with a "considerable amount" of cabbage to protect his heart from the glass, and then brought him to vomit. The cabbage cure worked, and the man survived ̵
"Some of them are absolutely spectacular," says Morris. "There were others who were riddles, weird things that were completely inexplicable to a nineteenth-century doctor." The Verge spoke with Morris about a frighteningly extensive scrotum, whether teeth can really explode and what we can learn about the future of medicine from the past.
This interview has been edited for the sake of clarity and brevity.
Why did you say, "I want to search the history of medical literature for the most terrible stories"?
It began as light relief from my previous book, which was a history of heart surgery The Matter of the Heart . And I started to stumble across strange and often more interesting cases than what I tried to read for work. In particular, there was a story about a man who had been run over by a tamped car in 1829, and the headline featured the phrase "suddenly slinging the entire gut into the scrotum," which is an eye-catching headline. So I had to keep reading. What had happened was that the wheel of this car had run right over his stomach and had shifted his bowels down. It's a type of injury called inguinal hernia. It's pretty common – just not in such dramatic circumstances. They treated it with hot water bottles and washed his belly with substantially warm poppy seed. But the main thing was that they had to push the bowel back out of this terribly stretched scrotum into the abdominal cavity. But the important thing was that it was a success. I had assumed that something terrible would be deadly, but he made a pretty good recovery. That was the first story I came across.
What did you discover about the exploding teeth in the book? Can teeth really explode?
It was reported in the first American journal devoted to dentistry and bore this wonderful title, Dental Cosmos . A dentist from Pennsylvania had come across these three cases over two to three decades. The first was a priest in Springfield County who developed this agonizing toothache. There is this great description of running up and down in front of his house, howling like an angry animal. He could do nothing to relieve the pain until the next morning, suddenly with a dramatic detonation – the description reads "with an audible report like a pistol shot" – this tooth exploded in his head. There are subsequent reports, including on a woman who reported having very similar symptoms, and the tooth finally burst with a collision that nearly knocked her over. There is a woman who was stunned for a long time afterwards, so it sounds like a dramatic explosion.
This is almost impossible to explain. I've talked to dentists and even chemists about what this may have caused, and there are rival theories. About 50 years ago, a British dental journal opened it again and tried to explain it. There is a kind of somewhat implausible theory that it had to do with the chemicals used in early dental fillings. So, if you had two different fillings and different chemicals were used, it was only possible that these chemicals reacted and caused an explosion. But after talking to dentists and chemists about it, we found nothing between us that fully explains the facts of the case.
What was one of the incredible stories you discovered?
It's an incredible story – in the sense that it almost certainly was not what the doctors thought. In the 1850s, a London doctor was called to a girl at the age of 12 years. Her parents had been alerted when she realized one day that she had just vomited a large living bullet. When the doctor arrived at her house, he was told that she had since vomited several other nudibranchs.
The story had this fantastic headline in the magazine in which it was first published: "Can the garden snail live in the human stomach?" Question. The condition persisted for several days or weeks afterwards, and she describes this terrible feeling that someday something would crawl up her throat. He came to this sacred, implausible theory that she supposedly ate lettuce from the garden and eventually had some baby slugs on a lettuce leaf that came to maturity in her stomach. This would be something that would be laughed out of court today in a medical journal. But in 1850 there were a few doctors who really thought it possible.
And the continuation of this story is that so many similar cases have been reported that an American physiologist has decided to do some experiments to find out if this is really plausible. He used a series of snails in stomach acid to see what happened to them, and in fact most died within minutes and were digested within a few hours. Of course, there is no way that a snail could survive in the human stomach. So this was finally brought to rest.
In which cases are you especially proud of having dug or interpreted them?
There is a case published in a booklet in the 17th century. It was a man who died in 1637 at the age of 21, and his mother wanted to know why. So she hired a doctor and a surgeon to do an autopsy. And what they found to their astonishment was something that seemed like a snake or a worm, a sort of big creature rolling up in one of the pumping chambers of the heart.
The surgeon unwrapped it, examined it in the light of the window, and concluded that it was some snake species. However, the description of the autopsy is so detailed that you can also read that the heart is enlarged and unnaturally hard and there are other secondary signs of the kidneys. Later, a nineteenth-century physician examined blood clotting, and he'd uncovered that story from 200 years earlier. He realized that what the doctor had found was probably a very large blood clot. Blood clots do not just make up these little patches. They can also turn into rather complicated shapes, such as tubes or tendrils, or things that look like an octopus. He concluded, and I think he's probably right that it was a big clot.
I took this case to a cardiologist and told him about the symptoms, and he said that this may be a case of a hypereosinophilic syndrome that causes this hardness and enlargement of the heart and can also affect the kidneys. But it also often causes these big lumps in the heart. It was quite satisfying to look at a case report and finally get a preliminary diagnosis of what was going on.
How has learning about these terrible cases in the medical history shaped your view of modern medicine?
The first thing one can say about modern medicine is that it is an evidence-based science that does not correspond to Victorian medicine. There were notable exceptions and many very good researchers and experimenters at that time, but also many of their means, which had been found by trial and error, and in some cases survived only by superstition and popular tradition.
There is a quote that I like that I found in an article on the history of medicine, but which was written in the 1850s by a very smart doctor was written. He wrote about ancient Roman medicine, and many of the means they used would seem ridiculous even in the 1850s. He wrote, "Perhaps in a few or two centuries our successors will look with so much astonishment and surprise at our present massive and awkward doses of vegetable powders, bulky salts, disgusting decoctions, etc., as we now look back on the previous therapeutic means of ours Ancestors. "This is a very common warning that you should never laugh too much about the past, because what you are doing now will ultimately look as ridiculous as anything before.
Are there any issues in these case histories that still apply today?
It is tempting to think that we are looking at a museum of ridiculous things that used to be in medicine, but in fact many do Not stuff. t change. There are heroic operations that I write about, and there are still heroic operations today. People have not lost their ability to do ridiculous things: many stories are about people who have inadvertently inserted objects into parts of the body they did not want to go into, or ridiculous accidents that they could have avoided. And if you go to a hospital today and talk to the doctors, you will find that they have all experienced the same mishap. Human nature never changes, even if the specific means do so.