Beware the Evil Tooth Worm

Long ago, an enterprising man with a penchant for dentistry plucked an apple from the orchard as he made his way to work. Alas, his breakfast was thwarted when a small worm poked its head from the hole it had made within its juicy home. The apple was abandoned . . . or perhaps the worm was just eaten around (because hygiene and healthy habits were not yet a cultural priority). Shortly afterwards, our dental ancestor examined a patient's decaying teeth, taking note of the rounded cavities that had developed within. "Aha," he exclaimed, "It must be a tooth worm!" While my story about the origins of the tooth worm is a fabrication, the existence of such a myth is quite real. The "evil tooth worm" is an urban legend that dates back as far as 5000 BC - where it was referenced in a Sumerian text. Without adequate understanding of why teeth decayed, many believed that the tooth worm bore a hole through your tooth and hid beneath the surface. A toothache was, therefore, the result of a restless worm wiggling around. This idea spread through centuries and several cultures, with evidence of the tooth worm myth found all over the world. The tooth worm even has its own creation myth, courtesy of 1800 BC Mesopotamia: “When Anu created the Sky, the Sky created the Rivers, The Rivers created the Valleys, the Valleys created the Swamps, the Swamps created the Worm, the Worm went to Samas and wept. His tears flowed before Ea. “What will you give me to eat, what will you give me to such?” “I’ll give you a ripe fig, apricots and apple juice.” “What use are a ripe fig, an apricot and apple juice to me? Lift me up! Let me dwell ‘twixt teeth and gum! I’ll suck the blood from the teeth and gnaw the roots in their gums.” “Because you have said this, O Worm, may Ea sink you with his mighty hand!” Some ancient doctors mistook tooth nerves for tooth worms and extracted both tooth and nerve in a misguided and extremely painful predecessor to the modern day root canal. An enduring belief, the tooth worm was an accepted cause of cavities and toothaches right up until the 18th century - when it was finally scientifically scrutinized by our very own Pierre Fauchard.