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:
“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.”
According to the dentist’s notes, the unbearable pain could not be treated, however:
“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.”
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:
“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.”
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:
“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.”
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:
“Because of the mixture of metals you have in the mouth, there might be spontaneous electrolysis. My favoured explanation is that if a filling were badly done so that part of the cavity remained, that would mean the possibility of build-up of hydrogen within a tooth.”
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:
“My feeling is that there wouldn’t be a jet of flame coming from this Victorian gentleman’s mouth.”
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.