I come across a lot of strange objects in my research: books bound in human skin , prosthetic noses made of silver , iron coffins with safety devices to prevent premature burial. But perhaps one of the strangest objects I’ve seen is the one pictured on the left. This is a depiction of the infamous tooth worm believed by many people in the past to bore holes in human teeth and cause toothaches. But before I tell you about this fascinating piece of art, let me give you a quick lesson in dental folklore. Tooth worms have a long history, first appearing in a Sumerian text around 5,000 BC. References to tooth worms can be found in China, Egypt and India long before the belief finally takes root (pun intended) into Western Europe in the 8th century.  Treatment of tooth worms varied depending on the severity of the patient’s pain. Often, practitioners would try to ‘smoke’ the worm out by heating a mixture of beeswax and henbane seed on a piece of iron and directing the fumes into the cavity with a funnel. Afterwards, the hole was filled with powered henbane seed and gum mastic. This may have provided temporary relief given the fact that henbane is a mild narcotic. Many times, though, the achy tooth had to be removed altogether. Some tooth-pullers mistook nerves for tooth worms, and extracted both the tooth and the nerve in what was certainly an extremely painful procedure in a period before anaesthetics.  The tooth worm came under attack in the 18 th century when Pierre Fauchard—known today as the father of modern dentistry—posited that tooth decay was linked to sugar consumption and not little creatures burrowing inside the tooth. In the 1890s, W.D. Miller took this idea a step further, and discovered through a series of experiments that bacteria living inside the mouth produced acids that dissolved tooth enamel when in the presence of fermentable carbohydrates. Despite these discoveries, many people continued to believe in the existence of tooth worms even into the 20 th century. The piece of art at the top of the article is titled ‘The Tooth Worm as Hell’s Demon.’ It was created in the 18 th century by an unknown artist, and is carved from ivory. It is an incredibly intricate piece when you consider it only stands a little over 4 inches tall. The two halves open up to reveal a scene about the infernal torments of a toothache depicted as a battle with the tooth worm, complete with mini skulls, hellfire, and naked humans wielding clubs. It is, without a doubt, one of the strangest objects I’ve come across in my research; and today, I pass this random bit of trivia on to you in the hopes that you may use it someday to revive a dying conversation at a cocktail party. 1. W. E. Gerabek, ‘The Tooth-Worm: Historical Apsects of a Popular Belief,’ Clinical Oral Investigations (April 1999): pp. 1-6. 2. Leo Kanner, Folklore of the Teeth (1928).
Read the article:
The Battle of the Tooth Worm