St Apollonia’s Day. A Day to Cure the Toothache February 9th

Saint Apollonia. Woodcut. Wellcome Collection. Public Domain Mark. She is shown with forceps and extracted tooth and the martyr’s palm.

The 9th of February is St Apollonia’s Day. She was martyred at Alexandria in 249 AD during the persecution of Emperor Decius. She was attacked during an anti-Christian riot and struck around the face knocking her teeth out. Then, she was taken to a bonfire and told they would throw her in if she did not renounce her faith. So, without waiting, she spoke a prayer and walked into the fire. This information is recorded in a near-contemporary letter from St Dionysius of Alexandria and so is a rare well documented martyrdom. Because her teeth were knocked out she is, therefore, Saint of Toothache.

I can remember my Grandmother prescribing cloves for me when I had toothache. And this was, and is, a common remedy. In my case, we would keep a clove or two in the mouth close to the site of the pain. According to Natural Ways to Sooth an Toothache cloves contain

‘Eugenol, a natural form of anaesthetic and antiseptic that helps get rid of germs. Eugenol is still used in dental materials today’

Dr John Hall, Shakespeare’s son-in-law, tended to use a pill to soothe sore gums, but also a oil from a wood called ‘Ol. Lig. Heraclei’ which may be oil from the Bay Tree. (‘John Hall and his Patients’ by Joan Lane). Most of his tooth cases seem to be sore gums, which suggests to me Dr John Hall did not generally do dental work.

To get a tooth drawn you could go to a Barber Surgeon, a Blacksmiths or specialist Tooth Drawer. This would be terrifyingly painful and probably only done when the pain was unbearable, but just think what a premium could be demanded by a really competent drawer. The drawers would probably not have any formal training, but the skills would be passed on by the drawer to his apprentice or assistant. So, they were a very important part of the health care system.

A bill of mortality for London 1665, showing 11 deaths caused by 'teeth' (as opposed to 353 for 'feaver'
List of causes of death, London during the plague of 1665. Teeth killed 11 people

‘Teeth’ was a common cause of death – most likely being from infection or an abscess. It is interesting that someone as erudite and educated as the 17th Century writer, John Aubrey tells us in a chapter on Magick of less formal ways of tooth care. He tells us, in places, that the person who told him the story is worthy of belief. So he seems to give some credence to the efficacy of these magickal ‘cures’. But, judge for yourself; this is what he wrote:

To Cure the Tooth-ach.

Take a new Nail, and make the Gum bleed with it, and then drive it into an Oak. This did Cure William Neal, Sir William Neal’s Son, a very stout Gentleman, when he was almost Mad with the Pain, and had a mind to have Pistoll’d himself.

To Cure the Tooth-ach, out of Mr. Ashmole’s Manuscript Writ with his own Hand.

Mars, hur, abursa, aburse.
Iesu Christ for Marys sake,
Take away this Tooth-ach.

Write the words, Three times; and as you say the Words, let the Party burn one Paper, then another, and then the last.

He says, he saw it experimented, and the Party immediately Cured

John Aubrey’s Miscellanies 1695

May, Williams and Bishop at the Old Bailey accused of murder in pursuit of bodysnatching

In 1832, in London Bishop, Williams and May were accused of bodysnatching. After killing the Italian Boy ( wonderful book by Sarah Wise ‘The Italian Boy‘) they jemmied out the teeth and took them to a South London Dentist. They ‘cheapened’ (I cheap, you cheap, we are cheapening: meaning to barter) with the Dentist to get a decent price for the teeth. The dentist wanted to use them for false teeth for his patients. If I remember correctly, he paid £1 for them.

The teeth were evidence in the trial of the murderers, and once two of them had been hanged (the third turned King’s Evidence), the dentist asked for the teeth back! They were released back to the Dentist who promptly put them in the window of his surgery as an advert for his professional skills!

Earlier, one of the Borough Boys Resurrectionist gang (based in Southwark, London) toured the battlefields of the Peninsular Wars and came back with hundreds of teeth extracted from dead soldiers to sell to dentists as false teeth – they became known as Waterloo Teeth.

When I first wrote this in I added ‘How things have changed!’, but recent news that people in parts of Britain, without effective access to Dental care, have begun resorted to doing their own dental work. This often means extracting their own rotten teeth. Effectively, it seems this Conservative Government is allowing dentistry to slip out of the NHS just like it did with eye health. For a study in what has happened to Dentistry in the UK in recent years, please look at this report here.

First writen February 2023, revised February 2024.

The Giant O’Brien

Charles Bryne

A few days ago the Hunterian Museum announced the decision to remove Charles Byrne from display. I have been watching the case for many years. It’s a fascinating story which was retold by Hilary Mantel in her excellent book ‘The Giant O’Brien’ published in 1998.

Generally, I’m all in favour of human remains on display in Museums. My own feelings is that I’d love my old bones to be displayed in a Museum in a few thousand years time. However, Byrne’s story is particularly poignant and argues the opposite case. Bryne was a giant, he just could not stop growing until he died. He died young and after making a name for himself (as the Giant O’brien) on account of his soaring height. (look at the catalogue entry in the Museum online collection for details of Byrne’s condition.)

John Hunter was the pre-eminent surgeon of the time, and was furiously collecting as many animal and human specimens as he could. Fantastically interested in anything and everything anatomical, he gives a shape to a Doctor Frankenstein figure. For example, his interest in electrical experiment – trying to get dead frogs to twitch with ‘life’ and he had a very active engagement with the Body Snatchers in order to investigate what made someone tall, small, fat, thin, ill, healthy, intelligent, thick, good, criminal and so on.

He pioneered various surgical techniques. Postillions (the people who rode on the horses pulling coaches) were prone to aneurysms as the horses kept squashing their inside leg. Hunter developed an operation to bypass the aneurysm. He tried it out successfully and then kept track of the patient somehow. When the postillion died the Resurrection Men would pay a visit to the local graveyard and dig up the body of the patient. Part of his thigh is on display in the Hunterian Museum (or at least it was the last time I looked). So you can see the success of Hunter’s ground breaking operation – one of wave of surgical developments of the 18th Century. The Hunterian Museum is the museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, and was founded by Hunter.

So, Hunter hears about the Giant O’Brien and finds out he is ill, possibly dying. He has his people keep tabs on him. Charles Byrne is determined not to end up on the anatomist’s slab. So, he organises his funeral in advance paying guards to look after his coffin. He orders a secure iron coffin and in addition, decides to be buried at sea. Because Byrne knows, as an eminent surgeon later on reported to a Commons Committee, that it wasn’t a case of whether the Body Snatchers would get a body but more how much they would have to pay for it if they really wanted it.

But, Byrne thinks he has done enough to die in peace.

Unfortunately, Hunter’s men tracked down the guarded room, and bribed the guards with what would have been a huge amount of money. Byrne was taken back to Hunter’s place, the body melted down, mounted, and was on display until the Hunterian Museum closed for refurbishment recently.

So, a step forward as he is no longer the subject of the public gaze. But in this case we absolutely know that Byrne did not want to be the property of the medical establishment. My own feeling is that he should be given his last wishes and be buried at sea.

Reference collections are very important for Science, and it is for this reason, I am sure, the Museum has not let go of Charles Byrne. But in this case, with this history, an exception should surely be made? He died on 1 June 1783