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The Mystery of the 19th Century Exploding Teeth

Victorian Dentist. (Image:  thy via  flickr/ CC BY 2.0 )
Victorian Dentist. (Image: thy via flickr/ CC BY 2.0 )

During the 19th century, following months of agonizing toothaches, certain patient’s teeth would explode inside their mouth, completely shattering them with the sound similar to a gunshot. One woman reported that the explosion had such a force that it nearly knocked her over.

The Dental Cosmos, the first major journal for American dentistry, published an article that described the strange condition. WH Atkinson a Pennsylvania dentist and author of the article, wrote how he had come across the condition in three different patients.

The first to be documented was Reverend DA from Springfield, in 1817. According to Atkinson’s notes, the reverend was experiencing intense pain, writing:

According to the dentist’s notes, the unbearable pain could not be treated, however:

In the second case, Atkins tells of a case 13 years later. The sufferer this time was a Mrs Letitia D from Mercer County in Pennsylvania. The dentist wrote how the symptoms were identical to the reverend:

The third case occurred in 1855 to a patient named Mrs Anna P. A. She reported that one of her canines had split from front to back following a sharp crack. Atkins wrote:

As unusual as these stories sound they are not unique, having been recorded throughout history. The British Dental Journal printed a story in 1965 which detailed other tales of detonating dentine throughout history.

One such story involves another American dentist, J Phelps Hibler. He describes a young woman in 1871 who was suffering from toothaches, writing how the tooth that had been aching suddenly “burst with a concussion and report, that well-nigh knocked her over.” He writes that it was so loud she was unable to hear properly for a few days after the incident.

So why were their teeth exploding? It may have been the chemicals used to make early fillings. Before the arrival of mercury amalgam in the 1830s, a wide variety of metals were used to fill cavities. These included lead, tin and silver, and several alloys.

Professor of Inorganic Chemistry at University College London, Andrea Sella, explained that when two different metals have been used it would create an electrochemical cell, virtually turning your mouth into a low-voltage battery, saying that:

So it is conceivably that an already weakened tooth could burst under this pressure. The hydrogen may even explode if ignited, although Sella admits the scenario is a little far-fetched:

With no records to show that the patients even had fillings, there is no way to know for sure if that is the case. So what is the explanation for this strange phenomenon? Nobody knows. The mystery of the 19th century exploding teeth, for now, at least, remains unsolved.

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