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September 10, 2020

Legend of the Toothworm—Alive and Well

Toothaches! Man has been suffering from, writing about, and chanting magical phrases to “cure” toothaches for more than 3,000 years.

As recently as 200 years ago, mankind still believed that the “scientific” cause of tooth misery was a silent, deadly worm that gnawed away at tooth enamel and pulp. The villain was called, appropriately, the “toothworm.”

Ancient Egyptians, a thousand years before Christ, were the first to give written credence to the toothworm theory. From the Nile delta, belief in the toothworm spread across all parts of the known world. Even today in India, China, and certain European countries, some people still think that a worm, embodying a devil, causes dental pain.

Throughout the centuries, in all regions of the world, toothache victims fought the evil toothworm with remedies concocted from plants, animals, human organs and secretions. And especially with magic.

Often the sufferers tried the technique of “transference.” That is, by rituals and incantations, they transferred the worm—and the pain it was causing—to another object. In ancient Rome, for example, a patient used to spit into a frog’s mouth and beg the creature to take the toothache away.

As farfetched as the toothworm idea seems to us today, maybe our ancestors weren’t really so far wrong. Don’t bacteria, under a powerful microscope, look like “little worms”? Though we now know that decay is caused by a bacteria called “streptococcus mutans,” we also understand that these infinitely small organisms do worm their way into weakened areas on our teeth–and do devilish damage to our dental health.

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