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Mystery of the Exploding Teeth

Grandma knows best.

For every sore throat, broken bone, and cough, she had a remedy. It might not’ve been exactly pure medical science, but she swore by it. It might’ve tasted terrible and worked only half the time, but hey! It could’ve been worse, as you’ll see in "The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth” by Thomas Morris.

Not long ago, in a library far, far away, Thomas Morris was doing research on heart disease and found something much more interesting: old medical journals from the days when doctors believed that leeches and laxatives were perfect cures for what ailed their patients. Morris was fascinated and he “could not stop reading.” The entries he found were horrifying, but “just as intriguing.”

Here, he presents the best of the worst, starting at the bottom, literally, with items that were delicately removed from places they never should have been. That includes cutlery, which, if you’ve ever believed that 18th-century folks were stuffy, will make you re-think your stance.

In many cases, diseases that we’ve conquered or can easily treat today were perceived as complete unknowns two centuries ago. Life was harder then: there was no anesthesia for any kind of surgery, kidney stones “were far more prevalent,” childbirth was a dicey thing, and being healthy depended on a balance of “humors,” which has nothing to do with laughter.

Even so, some “cures” are downright hilarious, given what we know now.

In the late 1700s, for example, the acid from a crow’s stomach was used in ointment to relieve pain. Pigeon butts were popular in 19th-century pediatrics. Arsenic and mercury were common medicines and were often smoked. And if you had a tapeworm, no problem: there’s a trap for that.

And yet — we survived, as a species. People lost limbs and lived. They had things driven into their skulls, and walked away. They got really, really bad advice and didn’t die.

And, sometimes, you have to wonder how ...

The very first thing you’ll need to know when you find “The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth” is that it’s not a mystery in the sense that you’re used to. No, author Thomas Morris tells, up-front, about every crushed limb, every dynamite burp and pigeon butt in wince-worthy, laughable detail.

But even though these things are humorous from today’s vantage point, Morris pokes fun in a respectful manner that isn’t mean-spirited. It’s more on the playful side, pulling old medical reports from the dust, explaining where needed, and cringing along with readers. Even better, these accounts go beyond the usual leeches-and-mercury tales; instead, most of what Morris presents hasn’t had a good exam in decades. Despite their age — and many are 200-plus years old — these articles seem fresh.

While Morris says that this book consists mostly of stories “written by doctors, for doctors,” there’s certainly no reason why it can’t be enjoyed by anyone who has interest in medicine, history, or humor. Even Grandma would agree: if boredom is what ails you, “The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth” is an excellent remedy.

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