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12 Nov 2018

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Thomas Morris. The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth: And Other Curiosities from the History of Medicine. Dutton Books (13 Nov. 2018)
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A puzzling series of dental explosions beginning in the nineteenth century, with the most recent case in the 1960s, is just one of many strange tales that have long lain undiscovered in the pages of old medical journals. Award-winning medical historian Thomas Morris has assembled the stories thematically so readers will witness Mysterious Illnesses (such as the Rhode Island woman who peed through her nose), Horrifying Operations (1635: A hungover Dutchman swallows a knife, which is then surgically removed from his stomach), Dubious Treatments ("Take twelve young swallows out of the nest . . ."), Unfortunate Predicaments (such as that of the boy who honked like a goose after inhaling a bird's larynx), and many other marvels.

Read together, these entertaining stories amount to far more than a series of anecdotes. They are worth reading for their entertainment value alone, but they also tell us a great deal about the evolution of modern medicine. Some show the medical profession hopeless in the face of ailments which today would be quickly banished by modern drugs; but others are heartening tales of recovery against the odds, patients saved from death by the devotion or ingenuity of a conscientious doctor. As a collection they allow the reader to learn about the evolution of medical expertise and to understand the rationale behind therapeutic regimes that would otherwise seem inexplicable today. However embarrassing the ailment or ludicrous the treatment, every case tells us something about the knowledge (and ignorance) of an earlier age, along with the sheer resilience of human life.