Following months of agonising toothache, 19th Century patients sometimes found their teeth shattering in their mouths – with a force that nearly knocked one woman over.

Young woman with mouth open, eyes closed, close-up

Young woman with mouth open, eyes closed, close-up


In the 19th Century, a Pennsylvania dentist called WH Atkinson came across a condition that sounds like the stuff of nightmares. Writing in The Dental Cosmos, the first major journal for American dentists, Atkinson documented an outbreak of exploding teeth.
He saw it in three patients. The first, the Reverend DA from Springfield, went through this unpleasant ordeal in 1817:
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.
Not terribly dignified behaviour for a clergyman, which gives you some idea of how much pain he must have been in. Toothache could be sheer torture in the era before cheap and effective dentistry: an inquest in Sussex in 1862 heard how a man took his own life after a toothache lasting five months, “during which time he was observed to cry, day by day, for hours together”. The unfortunate priest had a happier outcome:
All at once a sharp crack, like a pistol shot, burst his tooth to fragments, giving him instant relief
All proved unavailing, till, at 9:00 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.” He went to bed, and slept soundly all that day and most of the succeeding night; after which he was rational and well.

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