The Battle of the Tooth Worm

_toothwormI come across a lot of strange objects in my research: books bound in human skin, prosthetic noses made of silver, iron coffins with safety devices to prevent premature burial. But perhaps one of the strangest objects I’ve seen is the one pictured on the left.

This is a depiction of the infamous tooth worm believed by many people in the past to bore holes in human teeth and cause toothaches.  But before I tell you about this fascinating piece of art, let me give you a quick lesson in dental folklore.

Tooth worms have a long history, first appearing in a Sumerian text around 5,000 BC. References to tooth worms can be found in China, Egypt and India long before the belief finally takes root (pun intended) into Western Europe in the 8th century. [1]

Treatment of tooth worms varied depending on the severity of the patient’s pain. Often, practitioners would try to ‘smoke’ the worm out by heating a mixture of beeswax and henbane seed on a piece of iron and directing the fumes into the cavity with a funnel. Afterwards, the hole was filled with powered henbane seed and gum mastic.  This may have provided temporary relief given the fact that henbane is a mild narcotic. Many times, though, the achy tooth had to be removed altogether. Some tooth-pullers mistook nerves for tooth worms, and extracted both the tooth and the nerve in what was certainly an extremely painful procedure in a period before anaesthetics. [2]

_Toothworm3The tooth worm came under attack in the 18th century when Pierre Fauchard—known today as the father of modern dentistry—posited that tooth decay was linked to sugar consumption and not little creatures burrowing inside the tooth. In the 1890s, W.D. Miller took this idea a step further, and discovered through a series of experiments that bacteria living inside the mouth produced acids that dissolved tooth enamel when in the presence of fermentable carbohydrates.

Despite these discoveries, many people continued to believe in the existence of tooth worms even into the 20th century.

The piece of art at the top of the article is titled ‘The Tooth Worm as Hell’s Demon.’ It was created in the 18th century by an unknown artist, and is carved from ivory. It is an incredibly intricate piece when you consider it only stands a little over 4 inches tall. The two halves open up to reveal a scene about the infernal torments of a toothache depicted as a battle with the tooth worm, complete with mini skulls, hellfire, and naked humans wielding clubs.


It is, without a doubt, one of the strangest objects I’ve come across in my research; and today, I pass this random bit of trivia on to you in the hopes that you may use it someday to revive a dying conversation at a cocktail party.

1. W. E. Gerabek, ‘The Tooth-Worm: Historical Apsects of a Popular Belief,’ Clinical Oral Investigations (April 1999): pp. 1-6.
2. Leo Kanner, Folklore of the Teeth (1928).

By | 2014-01-06T12:38:31+00:00 January 6th, 2014|Casebooks|31 Comments


  1. Improbable Research » Blog Archive January 6, 2014 at 3:39 pm - Reply

    […] The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice blog discusses “the battle of the tooth worm“: […]

  2. fenifur January 6, 2014 at 3:50 pm - Reply

    I got to “removed the tooth and the nerve” and had to stop reading! Will come back to the rest later! :p

  3. Michael North January 6, 2014 at 4:12 pm - Reply

    What a fascinating article and artifact- thank you for posting. Where is this artifact housed?

  4. Tara Gould (@EditorialTara) January 6, 2014 at 5:26 pm - Reply

    Fascinating and wonderfully written. Thank you!

  5. […] Read the article: The Battle of the Tooth Worm […]

  6. jeanjames January 7, 2014 at 8:12 pm - Reply

    Did you actually get a chance to see this piece of art up close or only in the textbook? It is an amazing piece. I love the history you provided for us.

    • The Chirurgeon's Apprentice January 7, 2014 at 10:01 pm - Reply

      Unfortunately, I’ve not seen it in person. I believe it is in a museum collection in the US, although I wasn’t able to confirm this. Thanks for reading the blog!

  7. Ken January 7, 2014 at 9:50 pm - Reply

    Would you please describe the object in detail?
    What is the object made of? How tall is it? Any clue about when, where and by whom it was fashioned?
    I really like this thing!! I’d like to own one, if possible!

    • The Chirurgeon's Apprentice January 7, 2014 at 9:54 pm - Reply

      Hi Ken. I gave a lot of those details (material, height, etc) in the article itself. I’ve never come across anything like it before – I doubt there is any more in existence although I suppose you could have one commissioned.

      • Ken January 7, 2014 at 10:03 pm - Reply

        Alrighty …
        Your description is right there in the text, yet my attention was drawn to the excellent picture just below it. Enough that my eyes missed the printed description.
        I have tooth worm on my face and am appropriately embarrassed. : (

  8. Mary Doino January 7, 2014 at 11:15 pm - Reply

    Another example of ancient folk lore, being more reliable than modern practice! They did not have a word for Bacteria! bacteria causes tooth decay, and other ailment in the mouth, yet most American Dentist seem unaware! In the olden days people died when the bacteria entered their jaw and then their bloodstream! This is continuing today! Many Dentists can’t even read an X-ray! Maybe dentist would be more capable of identifying cavities and infections if they were labeled a “Tooth Worm”! They are still denying that bacteria exist, because you can’t see it!

  9. Tom January 8, 2014 at 11:51 pm - Reply

    First of all, I love your website and read it often. I am also a fan of “The Epic of Gilgamesh” written in 2150-2000 BC, during the Third Dynasty of Ur, Sumeria. The ancient tablets on which it is written is one of the oldest known examples of writing.

    That being said “Tooth worms have a long history, first appearing in a Sumerian text around 5,000 BC” seems too early and out of the written history range.

    Thank you again for your great work, writings, and website. (I also am a fan of The Order of the Good Death website)

    • The Chirurgeon's Apprentice January 9, 2014 at 12:43 am - Reply

      Thanks Tom! I got this fact from the sources cited in my article, which seem legit but I will check into it further!

  10. […] The Battle of the Tooth Worm […]

  11. […] Fitzharris, the Chirurgeon’s Apprentice, has been looking at the history of  tooth worms, which were thought to burrow into the teeth and cause toothache until the idea was dismissed in the […]

  12. […] till bloggar som rör Keplers utredning om varför snöflingor är sexkantiga, föreställningen om tandmaskar (sic), liksom trehundra år av […]

  13. […] antiquated ideas about teeth and […]

  14. Nolichucky Archaeology March 4, 2014 at 1:47 am - Reply

    so much for romancing thoughts about olden times, no thank you

  15. […] but the tooth. Carved teeth depict “tooth worm”. Amazing bit of history, courtesy of Lindsey […]

  16. Interesting | GUNTOTER August 14, 2014 at 11:53 pm - Reply

    […] background story: Toothworm […]

  17. Verme do dente - IdeaFixa November 17, 2014 at 1:14 pm - Reply

    […] via […]

  18. […] Now, these men were not people with particularly weird ideas, even for the time. Rather, the idea that toothaches were caused by worms had been around for a very long time. For a good overview of this verminous history, you should read Lindsey Fitzharris’ post on “The Battle of the Tooth Worm”. […]

  19. seablackwithink April 11, 2015 at 3:47 pm - Reply

    This is amazing…I was just viewing a star being eaten by a black hole and thinking…we know so little.. Then I find this post. Thank you for writing/sharing with us…I’m looking forward to reading more posts you’ve composed!

  20. seablackwithink April 11, 2015 at 3:48 pm - Reply

    Reblogged this on AnHonestDayOrTwo and commented:
    One of the many amazing things I’ve read this morning…

  21. manchestermama April 11, 2016 at 9:17 am - Reply

    Absolutely fascinating. Thank you for sharing!

  22. […] looking at this carving of the mythical tooth worm makes us […]

  23. Faylinn May 21, 2016 at 4:31 pm - Reply

    I find it very interesting that people thought that tooth worms were the cause of decay, because that just sounds silly to me. Although I think that it is wonderful that Pierre Fauchard, the father of modern dentistry, discovered that sugar was the real cause. I mean, people had been eating sugar for a very long time and so why do you think that that fact hadn’t been discovered earlier?

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