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The Curious Case of Syphilitic Teeth

Posted Oct 28 2013 1:51pm

Just in time for Halloween, a 19th century rendering of some teeth that look a little “vampiric” has been making the rounds:

L0021139 "Syphilitic malformations of the permanent teeth".

Though the headline on Boing Boing’s post about the image – “Curiously Vampiric Teeth of Untreated Syphilis Sufferers” – might make you wonder how the disease might make teeth look this way, these are specifically the teeth of youth born with congenital syphilis . The teeth grow that way.

This was extensively documented in the book this plate was originally published in – a tome going by the very catchy title, A Clinical Memoir on Certain Diseases of the Eye and Ear, Consequent of Inherited Syphilis; with an Appended Chapter of Commentaries on the Transmission of Syphilis from Parent to Offspring, and Its More Remote Consequences . Its author, Sir Jonathan Hutchinson , is considered the first modern authority on the disease, and the common tooth deformity he noted eventually took his name: Hutchinson’s teeth .

However, the main dental deformity isn’t the vampire fangs but the shape of the front teeth – the central upper incisors especially.

By far the most reliable amongst the objective symptoms is the state of the permanent teeth, if the patient be of age to show them. Although the temporary teeth often, indeed usually, present some peculiarities in syphilitic children, of which a trained observer may avail himself, yet they show nothing which is pathognomonic, and nothing which I dare describe as worthy of general reliance. The central upper incisors of the second set are the test teeth, and the surgeon not thoroughly conversant with the various and very common forms of dental malformation will avoid much risk of error if he restrict his attention to this pair. In syphilitic patients these teeth are usually short and narrow, with a broad vertical notch in their edges, and their corners rounded off. Horizontal notches or furrows are often seen, but they as a rule have nothing to do with syphilis. If the question be put, are teeth of the type described pathognomonic of hereditary taint? I answer unreservedly, that when well characterised, I believe they are. I have met with many cases in which the type in question was so slightly marked, that it served only to suggest suspicion, and by no means to remove doubt, but I have never seen it well characterised without having reason to believe that the inference to which it pointed was well founded.

The appended plate [second of the three above] will illustrate better than any verbal description can the characters of the syphilitic teeth. Figs. 2, 3, 4, 5, and 8, show typical malformations. The tooth in Fig. 1, had been only very recently cut, and some small spines are seen occupying the notch, which in a short time would be broken away, leaving a state resembling that shown in Fig. 3. Figs. 6 and 7 show exceptional conditions: – In the former, the teeth are not symmetrically malformed, and in the latter is illustrated the very interesting fact of almost total arrest of growth in the two test teeth.

More images from Hutchinson’s work:

syph_teeth2

syph_teeth

As for the connection between vampires and syphilis, check out this “syphilitic reading” of Dracula .

One more note that may be of interest to our regular readers: For centuries – including during Hutchinson’s day – one of the primary treatments for this disease was… mercury .

That does it’s own special kind of damage, of course…


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