Tooth Worms

By Tim Lambert

For centuries people thought that tooth decay was caused by worms. About 50 AD a Roman called Scribonius Largus wrote about them. He recommended putting henbane seeds on a hot metal plate over burning charcoal and inhaling the seeds to fumigate your mouth then rinsing your mouth with cold water. Henbane was used as an analgesic (a substance to reduce pain) and a sedative so inhaling the fumes may have made toothache less painful.

Unfortunately, if it reduced the pain it may have given people the illusion that it was curing their tooth decay. During the Middle Ages and the 16th century and 17th centuries, many famous doctors believed in tooth worms.

The idea that tooth decay is caused by worms lasted until the 18th century. In 1728 Pierre Fauchard, sometimes called the father of modern dentistry published a book discrediting the idea.

But nobody knew what caused tooth decay until the end of the 19th century. Fauchard realized there was a link between eating lots of sugar and tooth decay but he did not know why. In the 18th century, doctors tried to explain tooth decay by saying it was caused by inhaling vapors or by problems with the body’s humors (liquids in the body).

The first step to explaining it properly was in the 19th century when Louis Pasteur published his theory that disease was caused by microorganisms. In 1891 a dentist named W. D. Miller published a book called The Microorganisms of the Human Mouth. Miller realized that microorganisms in the mouth created acid which caused tooth decay.

Other tooth-related facts: From the 15th century people sometimes did have gold fillings in their teeth (if they could afford it). A man named Giovanni Arcolani recommended using gold to fill tooth cavities in a book published in 1483.

The toothbrush was invented in China (it was first mentioned in 1498). But toothbrushes did not reach England till the 17th century. They were first mentioned there in 1649.