Die eingebildeten Wurmer in Zahnen nebst dem vermeyntlichen Hülfsmittel wider dieselben
Jacob Christian Schäffer
Born in Querfurt, in Thuringia, Germany 1718, Schäffer was a famous German mycologist, entomologist and ornithologist. His foray into the topic of caries and tooth worms were due to his interest in mycology and it was restricted to this sole study. Schäffer's major contributions, however, were in optics. He is attributed with the design and production of optical systems of lens and prisms. His interests led him to design paper manufacturing tools. After attending the Collegium Poeticum in Leipzig he pursues Theology at the University of Halle (1736-38), just 25 miles from Querfurt. His career as a teacher and professor in Ratisbon is followed by his degree as a Doctor of Philosophy from University of Wittenberg and a Doctor of Divinity from University of Tubingen in 1760. He became a member of the Academy of Science.
The book in our collection "Die eingebildeten Wurmer in Zahnen nebst dem vermeyntlichen Hülfsmittel wider dieselben" translates to "The Imaginary worms in teeth, with the presumed means of dispensing them" was published in Regensburg, Germany, in 1757.
In it, Schaffer dispels the idea that toothache and decay were caused by small worms that that manifested inside the tooth and ate away at its structure. The theory became popularized around 1800 BCE when descriptions of treatments for worms in teeth were found in the Mesopotamian City, Nippur, as well as in Egypt. Up to the 18th century, it was common practice to treat toothache by ridding the mouth of "worms" by exposing the area to smoke from putting henbane seeds on charcoal, then rinsing the mouth with hot water. Small worm-like debris were found in the expelled water. Though this theory had been refuted and challenged by many, including French practitioners Jacques Houllier in 1543 and Pierre Fauchard much later, in the 18th century, this two-step process was still generally accepted as the standard of care for toothache.
The long accepted treatment was finally discredited with Schäffer's publication. He describes a series of experiments in which he tries the treatment to disprove the theory of teeth inhabiting worms. He gargled water without fumigating with smoke, and collected the water to see that there were no such worms. When he pretreated with the smoke of henbane seeds on charcoal before gargling with hot water, he was able to find many "worms" in the water. Upon further inspection found that the "worms" were parts of the henbane seeds. Schäffer appropriately describes the worms as "imaginary" in the title of his book.
Based in part on research done by Stella Park, class of 2021 as part of her assignment in Elective in History of Medicine and Dentistry, 2017-2018. Edited by Andrew I Spielman.
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