Author Q&A:
Thomas Morris

The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth and Other Curiosities from the History of Medicine (Bantam, £14.99)

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Blending fascinating history with cutting wit, surgical historian Thomas Morris mines the medical journals and explores some of the strangest cases that have perplexed doctors across the world for his new book.

How and why did you become interested in researching bizarre medical cases?
A few years ago I was browsing an old medical journal when I came across a story from 1829 about a man who had been run over by a cart. The headline was “Sudden protrusion of the whole of the intestines into the scrotum”. It was simultaneously fascinating, disgusting and hilarious. I soon found that these journals were a goldmine of bizarre and fantastic stories, and started to collect the best of them.

How scientifically rigorous was pre-20th century medical literature?
It varied enormously. There were plenty of doctors who did important, groundbreaking research. But editors were often happy to publish articles which were based on the flimsiest of evidence. For instance, as late as the 1870s journals regularly printed stories about patients who claimed to have animals living inside them – snakes, insects, lizards, even an entire family of slugs. And there was no such thing as a rigorous clinical trial. Based on nothing more than anecdote, doctors were able to publish articles claiming that all sorts of odd remedies were effective: snake dung, spider’s web, even crow’s vomit.

What was the mystery of exploding teeth?
It started in 1817 when a clergyman from Pennsylvania had a toothache so excruciating that he ran up and down his garden howling. He claimed that the tooth eventually went bang, easing his pain immediately. There were several other cases like it, including one woman whose tooth exploded so loudly that she was deafened for several weeks afterwards. But the last reported case of exploding teeth was over a century ago – the mystery is that nobody knows what caused them!

Which of the cases is your favourite and why?
There’s a fantastic tale from 1823 about a woman who began to emit urine from all over her body, including her nose, her ears and her eyes – and it includes the unexpected line that “urine spurted out of her navel, as if from a fountain”. It’s bizarre and perplexing, but what I particularly like about it is that there may have been a genuine but obscure medical condition behind it. It’s definitely a case that Dr Gregory House would have enjoyed.

Are there any lessons for modern medicine to be found in the book?
Well, I have some fun laughing at the strange remedies of the past – mercury cigarettes, tobacco-smoke enemas and so on. But there are articles from the Victorian era in which doctors ridicule the weird methods used by their predecessors. The point is that science never stands still: we should bear in mind that 21st century medicine will probably seem just as ridiculous to our ancestors in 200 years’ time.

Are bizarre cases such as those in the book consigned to the past?
Not at all! I think anybody who’s worked in emergency medicine will have seen plenty of patients with embarrassing self-inflicted injuries like those in the book. Only last year the BMJ published a case report about a man who was thought to have lung cancer – and it turned out his cough was actually caused by a toy traffic cone he had inhaled 40 years earlier!

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