Medical literature is littered with strange cases of humans doing ridiculous things, and doctors trying to clean up the resulting bodily messes. Take the case of a drinking game gone horribly wrong in 18th-century France: one man challenged his drinking buddies to swallow part of his glass. He broke off a piece of the cup, chewed up the fragments, and swallowed them. Needless to say, doctors got involved, securing a place for the drunken night in the annals of history.
The true tale of the glass-swallowing gentleman is one of dozens of bizarre cases that writer Thomas Morris dug out of medical literature for his new book, The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth and Other Curiosities from the History of Medicine. Morris describes the time-sensitive decision that faced the 18th-century doctors caring for this misguided young man: if they let the glass continue on its way out of his body the usual way, he could bleed internally. But if they made him throw up, the gut contractions around the glass shards could also poke holes in his stomach.
So the doctors fed this man a “considerable quantity” of cabbage to shield his insides from the glass, and then made him vomit. The cabbage cure worked, and the man survived — giving this particular story one of the more uplifting endings in Morris’ book. The book chronicles cases that range from genuine investigations into whether garden slugs can survive in the human stomach (they can’t), to alarming remedies for tuberculosis involving snake poop, to cases of penises ending up in very surprising places.
“Some of them are completely spectacular,” Morris says. “There were others that were mysteries, strange things that had happened that to a 19th-century physician were completely inexplicable.” The Verge spoke with Morris about an alarmingly distended scrotum, whether teeth truly can explode, and what we can learn about the future of medicine from the past.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
What made you say “I want to look through the history of medical literature for the most horrifying stories possible”?
It started as light relief from my previous book, which was a history of heart surgery called The Matter of the Heart. And I started to stumble across strange and often more interesting cases than what I was trying to read for work. There was one story in particular about a man who had been run over by a cart full of bricks in 1829, and the headline included the phrase, “sudden protrusion of the whole of the intestines into the scrotum,” which is an eye-catching headline. So I had to read on. What had happened was that the wheel of this cart had gone straight over his abdomen, and it had displaced his intestines downward. It’s a type of injury called an inguinal hernia, it’s quite common actually — just not in quite such dramatic circumstances. They treated it with hot water bottles, and they washed his abdomen in basically poppy seeds steeped with warm water. But the main thing was they had to push the intestines from this horrendously distended scrotum back into the abdominal cavity. But the key thing about it was that it was a success. I’d assumed something that horrendous would be fatal, but he made what was pretty much a full recovery. That was the first story I came across.
What did you discover about the exploding teeth in the book’s title? Can teeth really explode?
It was a case reported in the first American journal dedicated to dentistry that had this wonderful title, Dental Cosmos. A dentist from Pennsylvania had come across these three cases over the course of two to three decades. The first was a priest in Springfield county who developed this excruciating toothache. There’s this great description of him running up and down outside his house howling like an enraged animal. He couldn’t do anything to ease the pain until the next morning, suddenly, with quite a dramatic detonation — the description is, “with an audible report like a pistol shot” — this tooth, he said, exploded inside his head. There are later reports, which include one with a woman who said she had very similar symptoms, and the tooth eventually burst with an impact that well-nigh knocked her over. There’s a woman who was deafened for considerable time afterward, so it sounds as if it was quite a dramatic explosion.
It’s almost impossible to explain this. I’ve spoken to dentists and even to chemists about what might have caused it, and there are rival theories. About 50 years ago one of the British dental journals reopened it and tried to explain it. There is a sort of slightly implausible theory that it had to do with the chemicals that were used in early tooth fillings, that maybe if you had two different fillings, with different chemicals used, it was just possible that these chemicals might have reacted and caused an explosion. But having talked to dentists and chemists about it, we haven’t, between us, come up with something that fully explains the facts of the case.
What was one of the more unbelievable stories you discovered?
It’s an incredible story — in the sense that it almost certainly didn’t happen the way the doctors thought it did. But in the 1850s, a London doctor was called to see a girl around the age of 12. Her parents had been alarmed to discover one day that she had just vomited a large slug that was still alive. When the doctor got to their house, he was told that she had since vomited several other slugs.
The story had this fantastic headline in the journal in which it was first published: “Can the garden slug live in the human stomach?” It was a genuine question. The condition persisted for several days or weeks afterward, and she describes this terrible sensation of something crawling up her throat at one point. He came up with this wholly implausible theory that she was apparently fond of eating lettuces from the garden, and that at some point she had ingested a couple of baby slugs on a lettuce leaf that had grown to maturity inside her stomach. This is something that would just be laughed out of court today in a medical journal. But in 1850 there were some doctors that genuinely thought this was a possibility.
And the sequel to this tale is that there were so many similar cases reported that an American physiologist decided to conduct some experiments to find out whether it really was plausible. He put a number of slugs in stomach acid to see what happens to them, and sure enough most of them died within minutes and were digested in a few hours. Of course, there is no way a slug could survive inside the human stomach. So that one was finally put to rest.
What cases are you particularly proud of having dug up or interpreted?
There’s one that was published in a pamphlet in the 17th century. It was a man who died at age 21 in 1637, and his mother wanted to know why. So she engaged a doctor and a surgeon to come and perform an autopsy. And what they found, to their amazement, was a thing that appeared to be snake, or a worm, some kind of large creature coiled up inside one of the pumping chambers of the heart.
The surgeon uncoiled it and examined it in the light from the window, and concluded that it was some species of serpent. But the description of the autopsy is so detailed that you can also read about the fact that heart was enlarged and unnaturally hard, and there were some other secondary signs affecting the kidneys. Later, a doctor in the 19th century was studying blood clotting and he’d uncovered this story from 200 years earlier, and he realized that what the doctor had found was probably a really huge blood clot. Blood clots don’t just form these little blobs. They can also turn into rather elaborate shapes like tubes, or tendrils, or things that look like an octopus. So he concluded, and I think he’s probably right, that it was a large clot.
I took this case to a cardiologist and told him about the symptoms, and he said this is quite possibly a case of hypereosinophilic syndrome, which causes this hardness and enlargement of the heart, and it can also affect the kidneys. But it also often causes these large clots inside the heart. It was quite satisfying to look at a case report and finally get some tentative diagnosis about what had been going on.
How has learning about these horrifying cases in medical history shaped your view of modern medicine?
The first thing to say about modern medicine is that it is an evidence-based science in the way that Victorian medicine was not. There were notable exceptions to that, and a lot of very good researchers and experimentalists back then, but also a lot of their remedies that had been found through trial and error and, in some cases, only persisted through superstition and folk tradition.
There’s a quote that I like, which I found in an article about the history of medicine, but written in the 1850s, by a very clever doctor. He was writing about ancient Roman medicine, and a lot of the remedies they were using would seem ridiculous even in the 1850s. He wrote: “Perhaps in some century or two hence our successors will look back upon our present massive and clumsy doses of vegetable powders, bulky salts, nauseous decoctions, etc. with as much wonderment and surprise, as we now look back on the preceding therapeutic means of our ancestors.” That’s a very wide warning that you should never laugh too hard at the past because what you’re doing now will eventually come to look as ridiculous as anything before.
Are there themes that turned up in these case histories that still hold true today?
It’s tempting to think that we’re looking at a museum of ridiculous things that used to happen in medicine, but actually a lot of this stuff doesn’t change. There are heroic operations I write about, and there are still heroic operations going on today. People haven’t lost their ability to do ridiculous things: quite a lot of the stories are about people who unwisely inserted objects into parts of the body where they weren’t meant to go, or ridiculous accidents that they could have avoided. And if you go to an emergency room today in a hospital and talk to the doctors, you’ll find that they’ve all experienced pretty much exactly the same misadventure. So human nature never changes, even if the specific remedies do.