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The Scrivener: The Teeth In My Bottom

"When you have toothache you tend to think you're reaching the end of civilization as we know it,'' says Brian Barratt.

While considering the ouchy subject of molars in this delightfully painful column Brian comes up with the likeliest of all explanations for the Mona Lisa's enigmatic smile.

For more of Brian's scrumptious words click on The Scrivener in the menu on this page. And for a happy abundance of mind-stretching fun do please visit his Web site The Brain Rummager www.alphalink.com.au/~umbidas/

There's nothing like toothache to stifle joy. Well, there probably is, but when you have toothache you tend to think you're reaching the end of civilization as we know it. When all the molars and wisdoms from one side of the top row have gone, the jolly old cuspid declares independence. It wanders. It doesn't fit. The result? Inflammation and misery.

This week, a filling and a bit of filing down didn't fix the problem. Two days later, half an hour of filing, bit by bit, top and bottom, without anæsthetic, has eased the dental tension. It had to be without anæsthetic because if your tooth is numb you can't feel whether or not the excavation has worked, can you? Ouch. Very ouch.

The ancient Greek physician Galen was ahead of his time 2,000 years ago. He was the first person to use the pulse rate to check a person’s health. Clever chap. He also managed to find out quite a lot about the human skeleton. This would have somewhat difficult in those days — dissection of corpses was not allowed. He did, however, make a strange mistake. He believed that adult humans have only 16 teeth. At least, that's what I read in a book.

We now know that most of us have about 24 teeth by the time we are 12. A further eight teeth might grow later. "Might" is the operative word. It wasn't until I was 65 that an unsprouted wisdom tooth was discovered lurking horizontally in my jawbone. And there it shall stay. I hope.

In the olden days, rotten teeth were the norm, of course. And therein lies the answer to the mystery of the Mona Lisa. She's trying desperately to smile but her teeth ache like hell and they are various shades of brown and black. What's left of them, that is. Hence the twisted closed-mouth grimace. La Gioconda is Mona Smorfia, poor lady.

False teeth are well nigh undetectable these days. In ancient times, however, they would have been fairly obvious. Between 2,000 and 3,000 years ago, they were made of some very odd materials. You might meet people who had teeth made of ivory, bone or even wood. We can't use wood now because we must conserve our trees.

Very rich people had teeth made from precious materials. When they wanted to eat, they took their teeth out to avoid losing bits of them while they chewed. In the 17th and 18th century rich people could buy false teeth made from the extracted teeth of poor people. Now there's a good idea — how about raising a bit of cash by selling your teeth to a needy rich person?

About 150 years ago, false teeth were made of porcelain. Rather smart. They were individual teeth, not complete sets. Various other materials were tried. One innovative material that did not work too well was celluloid. There's a story about one poor chap who, while lighting a cigar at his London club, set his own teeth on fire. Smoking is indeed a health hazard.

So, when all is said and done, we're really rather lucky. Like Uriah Heep, we have much to be thankful for. In my case, I can echo the dear old lady who reported that although her top teeth were a bit troublesome, the teeth in her bottom were fine.

© Copyright 2006 Brian Barratt

Adapted for adults with wisdom teeth, from the section on teeth in the author's website, The Brain Rummager.

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