5 Strange Facts About Teeth

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Teeth are amazing.

If there's one piece of wisdom that my mum always gave me, it was 'look after your teeth'. they're often one of the first things you notice about a person; you can grin cheerfully with them, sneer with them, grimace with them. They transform the structure of your face and are integral in keeping us well fed and rearing to go. Tooth enamel is the hardest substance in our body and we have created whole mythologies around their loss and regrowth (and many parents have anxiously tried to decide the proper exchange rate between fae and human currencies for the collection of said discarded teeth.) Today I wanted to take a moment to appreciate our gnashers with these 5 strange facts about our teeth.

1. People's Teeth Weren't Always As Bad As You Might Think

People often complain about the 'Hollywood smiles' in historical dramas. "No one would have perfect teeth like that!" They cry, launching their popcorn at Kevin Costner's face  on the screen as 'everything I do' plays in the background. But perhaps things are a little more accurate than you might imagine. While of course dentistry back then was often quite primitive and hygiene was not quite as it is nowadays, the image of black-toothed Dickensian crones as the common denominator isn't quite right, at least for anything before Elizabethan times.

During the reign of Elizabeth 1st sugar was imported from the New World with far greater ease and quantity than had ever previously been experienced. The aristocracy adored the new extravagant substance and were hooked. Sugar, as we all know, causes hellish amounts of tooth decay if unchecked, so it wasn't long before Elizabeth 1st and many of her peers had the stereotypical black teeth and stinking breath that we often associate with historical characters. By the 18thc and the caribbean slave-driven sugar trade, sugar was far more widely available to those of more modest means and the sugar-scarred smiles remained.

Before that, while people wouldn't have access to advanced orthodontic work and fluoride toothpaste, they nevertheless had comparatively healthy, whiter teeth.

2. The Overbite is a Modern Invention

(I, like many modern teenagers, had quite a bit of orthodontic work that lasted a few years. Teeth-straightening via the ol' train track braces were a breeze, my biggest problem was an overbite that made me look not unlike a ferret. Which meant I had to wear this hideous thing for months at a time all the time. Take a good look - that's two big blocks of plastic that interlock to shove your lower jaw forward. I had to eat and sleep with it in: just imagine trying to mash a sandwich between two blunt cubes of plastic that cover pretty much all of your molars. Fun. Admittedly, people have it a lot worse, but the little insult to injury is that 10 or 12 years later my jaw has gradually clicked back to how it used to be as if nothing happened. It doesn't lock up any more (more fun for young me!) but I will be forever cursed to look a little bit like a rodent or one of those snooty weak-chinned caricatures of snobs.
Ah well, at least I can be comforted by the knowledge that my hefty overbite is actually a pretty modern invention.

It's thought that the overbite appeared in western society only some 250 years ago when the knife and fork commonly started to be used together. Previously people would carry knives with them to chop up food, but generally if you wanted to eat you would take hold of one side of your meal and tear off pieces of it with your teeth like you were eating a KFC drumstick. This put more stress on the incisors and your teeth would naturally develop to meet together more like a grazing animal's. Without this, your incisors keep growing and an overbite becomes more prominent.

This trend was noticed by the anthropologist Charles Loring Brace after he had analysed 19,000 skulls from varying time periods. Notably, we can even see this in Richard III's skull when he was recently uninterred.

3. Anaesthesia was accidentally discovered by a dentist

Throughout history many of the most common and painful ailments were due to teeth problems, so it's perhaps no surprise that the field of anesthetics was pioneered by many dentists. One of the most important, and certainly unexpected, developments in anaesthetics was 'discovered' by Horace Wells. One day in 1844 he and his wife sat in on a demonstration of 'laughing gas' (nitrous oxide) displayed by the showman Gardner Colton. While Gardner had briefly studied medicine the show was for pure entertainment due to the amusing antics of anyone under the influence of the gas. During the demonstration one of Gardner's volunteers injured his leg quite badly with a gash as he gamboled around under the influence but seemed completely unaffected. Inspired, Wells chatted to him and found that the man was unaware that he had been injured. Wells got to work and enlisted Colton to help him experiment and the next day Wells bravely decided to have one of his own wisdom teeth extracted under the procedure by an assistant John Riggs. Wells didn't feel a thing and knew he was onto something special.

 The development of the anaesthesia method didn't always go smoothly and required much experimentation and many demonstrations to convince people of its effectiveness. Unfortunately Wells himself came to a rather sad end as he could not quite hack the like of a self-made anaesthesiologist and suffered badly from homesickness and loneliness when he moved from Massachussetts to New York to seek his fortune. He medicated his depression with an over-reliance of ether and chloroform that grew to such heights that he was often in a stupor between waking and dreams and lost all control. On his 33rd birthday he peaked in his drug-induced madness when he threw acid and two women in the street, but fortunately only their clothes were badly damaged. Wells was arrested and, finally growing sober enough to comprehend the depths of his own shame, he overdosed on chloroform and slashed a major artery in his thigh, committing suicide. It was a truly tragic end to a man we owe very much to in the field of inhalation anaesthesia.

4. Children's skulls look like this when they're growing adult teeth.


(Picture by Stefan Schafer)
Humans have twenty baby ('milk') teeth and eventually thirty-two adult teeth on average. Though nowadays with said above orthodontic work many adults carry on as normal with less. (I, for example, have 24 as I had 4 removed as part of getting my braces and for some reason or another at age almost-27 I still haven't grown any wisdom teeth.)
We're not alone in having a  double set - cats and dogs also have baby teeth, but lose them within a few weeks or months. Other animals either have one set (such as baleen whales), multiple sets that constantly shed (like sharks), or have sets that grow continually and need to be worn down (as with many rodents). So why do we have two sets?

Primarily it is believed to come down to skull size: as babies our skulls just aren't big enough for all the big strong teeth we need to last a whole lifetime. Human babies take it even one step back again, being born without any teeth at all. Naturally this makes breast-feeding less of a horror show, but it also is because human babies are so underdeveloped that they're really overly-precocious foetuses. So in the intense period of growing that a small child does, the baby teeth will serve them just fine. When their jaws begin to grow to adult sizes then new teeth will appear, being guided by the original positions of the slots of the baby teeth. Pretty neat!

5. Your tooth can even be used to cure a certain kind of blindness....

It remarkable what medicine can do with a little creative engineering. Check out this video about a Minnesotan woman who , after having her tooth taken out and turned into a lense for her eye, can see again in one eye after being blind for nine years. She tells us in her own words about how many funny looks she gets, but most importantly about how amazing it is to be able to see her grandchildren for the first time.


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