Biting the bullet

March 21, 2012
Noah Levine

Issue 2

Some magicians have been known to amaze crowds with a trick where it appears they are catching bullets with their teeth. However, the tooth marks found on a 200-year-old musket ball on display at The Dr. Samuel D. Harris National Museum of Dentistry, on loan from Kathy Lee Erlandson, are more likely to have come from a wounded soldier than a showman from two centuries ago. “Apparently there’s some credence to the ‘bite the bullet’ for pain kind of thing,” said Museum Curator Dr. Scott Swank.

Some magicians have been known to amaze crowds with a trick where it appears they are catching bullets with their teeth. However, the tooth marks found on a 200-year-old musket ball on display at The Dr. Samuel D. Harris National Museum of Dentistry, on loan from Kathy Lee Erlandson, are more likely to have come from a wounded soldier than a showman from two centuries ago.

“Apparently there’s some credence to the ‘bite the bullet’ for pain kind of thing,” said Museum Curator Dr. Scott Swank.

The bullet on display at the museum was excavated from what is now the Northport section of Baltimore but is believed to have been a field hospital during the War of 1812. University of Maryland Dental School pathologist and  forensic odontologist Dr. Bernard Levy analyzed the musket ball and verified the impressions are from a human’s dentition.

This makes the musket ball a rare find because while many lead musket balls from the Civil War and prior conflicts have been found with teeth marks on them, Dr. Swank said the vast majority have been chewed on by feral hogs who rooted them from the ground. Spotting the difference between a bullet chewed by a hog and one a human chomped on to withstand a painful medical procedure takes some skill, but dental professionals are best equipped to notice.

“I’m not sure if an untrained eye would recognize them as tooth marks, but it’s definitely all chewed up,” Dr. swank said.

A well-scuffed bullet is a rare find, but it’s not the only item in the museum’s collection being showcased this year. Dr. swank said there will not be a special exhibit showing off all the items from 200 years ago, but the items from that area will be highlighted within their existing displays.

Just a handful of dental items have survived that long, and this is for several reasons, Dr. swank said. The biggest reason is that dentistry 200 years ago was very different than it is today. Only the very wealthy could afford anything that might resemble restorative treatment of today.

“A normal person was just having their teeth taken out when something broke or started hurting them, so the instruments that evolved around that time period are primarily geared toward extractions,” Dr. Swank said.

Those items in the museum’s collection include forceps, which have evolved in terms of anatomic and ergonomic design, but were basically the same tools 200 years ago as they are today. The other commonly used tool from that era was the extraction key, which Dr. Swank said is a little more difficult even for dental professionals to place without seeing an illustration showing how it was used.

“An extraction key, you’ve got to know what you’re looking at,” he said. “It just looks like a claw on the end of a steel bar with a handle. If you’ve never seen one before you’d think, ‘What is that?’”

Beyond the tools of extraction, a few sets of dentures from the era have also survived to become part of the museum collection. At that time most dentures were very expensive and either hand-carved or carefully swaged to fit a model.

The dental landscape of 200 years ago was far different than it is today, but to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, and the significance the war played for its home of Baltimore, the Dental Museum is providing a peak at the surviving tools and relics from that era. For more information on the museum visit dentalmuseum.org.