The Horrors Of The Tooth Worm

A French carving, pharm dating from the 1700s, designed to look like a human molar. At 10.5 centimeters in height it depicts inside its two halves, “The tooth worm as Hell’s demon” an explanation of the toothache as a battle occurring with the mythical tooth worm. The legend of the tooth worm apparently dates back to 1800 BC Mesopotamia and even has its own creation myth:

“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!”

The idea of a tooth worm was finally put to scientific scrutiny in the late 18th century by both Pierre Fauchard — “the father of modern dentistry” — and Philip Pfaff — who was dentist to Frederick the Great of Prussia. Pfaff seemed loathe to totally commit to such a position however (or was, in fact, a wonderfully sarcastic man), writing that, while he himself had never personally come across a tooth worm, he did not wish “to dispute the observations of learned doctors.”

via Honeyed : WurzelTumblr

The Life, Debt and Death of Vic Chesnutt

Photo by Ben McCormick

Singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt intentionally overdosed on muscle relaxers, lapsed into a coma and died Christmas morning, aged 45, in his hometown of Athens, Georgia. A memorial service was held for him today.

Many are devastated, some are angry, few seem surprised. In addition to his physical impediments (he’d been wheelchair bound since 1983 when a drunk-driving accident left him paralyzed from the waist down with limited use of his hands and arms), Chesnutt struggled his entire adult life with crippling depression. He channeled this anguish into writing raw, unflinching songs that tackle the pain of the human condition head on, often with a wicked sense of humor.

His scrappy authenticity garnered the love and respect of a wide variety of fellow musicians, from Jeff Mangum to Michael Stipe to Patti Smith. His band lineups over the years included members of Fugazi, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Elf Power, Throwing Muses, and more.

In 1996, Garbage, Smashing Pumpkins, REM, Sparklehorse, the Indigo Girls and others covered Mr. Chesnutt’s songs for Sweet Relief II: The Gravity of the Situation, a tribute album benefiting a foundation that raises funds to help pay the medical bills of uninsured musicians.


It was, needless to say, a cause close to the decedent’s heart. There can be no doubt that Chesnutt’s ongoing struggle to pay off Sisyphean medical costs contributed to his despair. He’d recently been served with a lawsuit filed by a Georgia hospital after accruing surgery bills totaling over $70,000. He couldn’t afford more than hospitalization insurance, and was no longer able to keep up with the payments. From an interview with the LA Times earlier this month:

I really have no idea what I’m going to do. It seems absurd they can charge this much. When I think about all this, it gets me so furious. I could die tomorrow because of other operations I need that I can’t afford. I could die any day now, but I don’t want to pay them another nickel.

What a nightmare. Now is not the time to get into a political discussion about health care reform in the United States (actually, no, strike that– it’s probably the perfect time… I just don’t personally have the stomach for one at the moment) but it’s worth at least acknowledging that the horrific plight of the uninsurable is one faced by untold millions of far less luminary –and conflicted– Americans than Vic Chesnutt.

Chesnutt’s good friend Kristin Hersh has set up a tribute page accepting donations. 100% of that money will go to his family.


Bone China Autopsies by Beccy Ridsel

Fine china should be handled with care, as demonstrated by artist/sculptor Beccy Ridsel earlier this year. “This work was an installation, set up as a lab experiment in progress, complete with scalpels, lab coats, needles and a microscope. Piles of dicarded, cut-up craft objects lay about the desk, some with their innards seeping out, others rearranged, Frankenstein-style.” The purpose of Ridsel’s experiment was to find the point at which craft transforms into art, a problematic division she discusses in a post on Yatzer. She notes at the end of the article, “I am currently working on domestic variations of these pieces; the irony of [this] isn’t lost on me.”

[via Asha Beta]

Úna Burke’s Medical Armor

Our next and final feature on Late-to-the-Party Sunday is this collection of prosthetics-inspired, insectlike body armor created by recent University of the Arts London graduate Úna Burke, blogged everywhere and recently rediscovered by Haute Macabre. On her site, Burke explains the rationale behind these creations: “This is a conceptual collection of wearable art pieces, depicting a series of eight human gestures associated with the cause, the physical and psychological effect and the healing stages of human trauma…in my research I have referred to the work of artists, photographers and designers such as Hans Bellmer, Anthony Gormley, Alexander McQueen, Erwin Olaf, as well as looking at the casts of the victims of Pompeii. The entire collection made from undyed vegetable tanned leather which is reminiscent of caucasian flesh.”

Burke’s pieces are reminiscent of fellow Londoner Paddy Hartley’s Project Facade in their sensual combination of sculpture and fashion to represent body trauma and the trappings of recovery.

The Internet Finds Phineas Gage

As far as medical curiosities go few are as famous in professional circles as Phineas Gage. Gage was 25 years old and working as a foreman for a blasting crew preparing a railroad bed outside of Cavendish, Vermont when, on September 13, 1848 he became the victim of an unfortunate accident. While using an iron rod to tamp gunpowder and sand into a hole in the rock a spark was struck and the resulting explosion sent the 3’7″, 13 and 1/2 pound rod through his left cheek and out the top of his skull. Amazingly, he did not die. When he was brought to Harvard University, doctors there made a cast of his head. It, along with Gage’s skull and the tamping iron that changed his life, remain on display at the university’s Warren Anatomical Museum.

What happened to Gage after the accident mostly comes to us through a report by Dr. Henry Jacob Bigelow, published in Proceedings of the Massachusetts Medical Society. Gage apparently returned to work but was much changed since his accident, he was “fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity”. (Author’s Note: It has come to my attention that the basis for this quote comes, in fact, from Gage’s physician John Martyn Harlow. See comments.) For a time he exhibited himself in P.T. Barnum’s American Museum in New York City. He also worked with Currier’s livery stable and coach business for a year and a half, and in Chile in the same capacity. He died in 1860, 11 1/2 years after the accident, in California. After his death a litany of odd facts were added to those 11 1/2 years. Gage’s mother related to Harlow that he would often make up stories to entertain his nieces and nephews. This may have contributed to later stories that embellished his personality shift, turning him into a abusive lunatic and liar. It was also related that he became a slovenly drifter who toured with circus sideshows, most likely due to people seeing the name P.T. Barnum, more famous for his circus than the American Museum.

The most glaring omission in the life of Phineas Gage, however, has been the lack of a photograph of the man. That is, until recently. In 2007 Beverly Wilgus posted a photo on her Flickr account that she and her husband Jack had owned for over 30 years. Thinking the man was holding a harpoon, they titled it “Daguerreotype – One Eyed Man with Harpoon”. There was some discussion as to whether the object in the gentleman’s hands was actually a harpoon and, in December 2008, a commenter suggested that “maybe you found a photo of Phineas Gage? If so, it would be the only one known.” Six months later, a few road trips and a correspondence with a leading expert on Gage under their belt, the Wilguses are certain they have, indeed, the only image of the man. In August the Journal of the History of the Neurosciences will be publishing an article detailing their findings.

via MetaFilter

Hyungkoo Lee’s “Objectuals” and The Constant Siege

8-EP, by Hyungkoo Lee, from the series Objectuals.

If you’re not reading CONSTANT SIEGE, you should be. Photographer Clayton Cubitt’s tumbleblog diary is full of memorable quotes, photographs and footage, mixed in with Cubitt’s own work. The result is a voyeuristic glimpse at an artist’s audiovisual predilections, similar to Audrey Kawasaki’s ffffound page in the sense that you can draw interesting comparisons between what the author chooses to “clip” and what they produce. Most artists keep a secret stash of images they find interesting, and I appreciate those who share at least a small portion of that with the public.

Together, the past week’s eclectic collection of discoveries – which includes a sensual Gabriel von Max painting titled The Anatomist, a grisly early 20th-century Manhattan crime scene, a silicon sculpture of a human face that’s equally realistic and demonic, the Oriental rat flea, a fascination with with plague doctor masks spanning several posts, the first photo ever taken by Cubitt (at age 5), an SS recruiting poster from Norway that’s perfectly in keeping with Cubitt’s photographic color scheme, and the “Highlights from Wildwood, NJ” video – officially make this the Best Constant Siege Week Ever.

Enlarging My Right Hand with Gauntlet 1 by Hyungkoo Lee

Going a little further back, I was taken by these images from Hyungkoo Lee’s series Objectuals. Lee’s surreal augmentation of the face and body reminds me of Paddy’s Hartley’s experiments with face corsets, and faintly recalls my favorite shot from the movie Brazil. More images from the series after the jump, and yet more on Lee’s site.

Surgical Nightmares

There is, I find, a fascination with outdated methods of medicine. It stems, I think, from a combination of what strikes us now as the humorous ignorance on the part of the medical practitioners of bygone eras and abject terror at the products of said ignorance. Certainly, a quick glance around the web finds a myriad of lists focusing on extremely painful procedures and heinous looking surgical objects meant to cure ailments ranging from appendicitis to hiccups.

This particular list of “20 Scary Old School Surgical Tools” is no exception and, indeed, it does manage quite handily to fulfill the purpose set forth by its title containing, as it does, a score of surgical instruments of dubious nature and malevolent air. It is rife with miniature scimitars, saws, and horrid contraptions meant only to mutilate and scar as well as less insidious forms of early quackery like the tobacco enema kit pictured above.

The hook here, so to speak, is the sheer brutality these instruments represent. There is no subtlety or delicacy involved; they are meant to create a serviceable opening as quickly as possible so that the doctor could insert their hands inside whatever cavity was their focus. In that regard, it strikes me that, perhaps, the gynecologist’s arsenal remains little changed, a collection of devices used to stretch and pry open their victims as if opening a tin can. Of course, it is also entirely possible that this may merely represent a distinct and grievous misunderstanding of the gynecological craft on my part.

via jwz

Paul Komoda’s Syphilis Sculpture Up for Grabs

Whoooooo’s that laaaady?

This bust is the first in Paul Komoda’s highly-anticipated “Human Pathology” series. Paul, who previously brought you this cauliflower-tastic take on the Elephant Man, recently completed this sculpture of a woman suffering from Tertiary Syphilis (more images of the sculpt here). These busts were originally commissioned from Paul by the U. S. Department of Education – one for every classroom, placed squarely atop each health teacher’s desk, to scare students into finally taking the subject matter seriously. Unfortunately, the piece came out more garish than they expected, and the Department refused the final product. Well, their loss is your gain! Castings of this fine piece, titled La Pestilencia, are available from Artist Proof Studio for $160 a pop. What a fine thing to place on top of your piano, where you can serenade it every night – or perhaps you’d want place it on your bookshelf, betwixt your most rare leather-bound medical textbooks. It could greet guests at the dinner table, or look up at visitors mournfully from your office cubicle.

I’ve been watching Paul sculpt this thing for the past couple of months, and it still gives me the willies every time I see it up close. Paul chose to photograph the bust with some some light illuminating it from below, which I feel is a mistake. The harsh tales-around-the-campfire lighting makes the face look even more monstrous than it needs to be, and fails to show the humanity and sadness that Paul so carefully instilled into its features. For this isn’t some Hollywood ghoul – it’s a real person, based on this tragic and completely NSFL photo taken in 1973 of a syphilis patient. What a piercing photo – you can tell, by the eyes, by the cheekbones, the shape of the jaw – that this was once a beautiful woman, similar in appearance, perhaps, to Winona Ryder, but ruined by an unlucky life. She could still be alive today.

Gild Your Dead, Harlem-style

There is a decent read on MSNBC about the way our society’s ballooning vanity has affected the post-mortem beautification process. Example: “Silicone implants will explode [during cremation]. They’re like little bombs.” What actually gave me pause was the attached video.

“Everyone in Harlem knows I’m the guy that puts a smile on your face. Other places you just look.. dead,” says Isaiah Owens – owner of a Harlem funeral home. The video itself is a series of stills from his practice. He specializes in post-mortem sprucing, but we’re not just talking the usual wax and paint treatment. No, this man genuinely delights in making the deceased look as cheerful as possible. The slides show Owens romancing a cadaver with his magic until she smiles an almost-Giaconda smile.

There are no demure neutrals for the ladies here – hot pink nail polish, generous helpings of subdermal injections and blush are this man’s passion. Isaiah’s reputation is that of making the dead look better than the living. The funeral home’s website refers to his style at “panache” and calls Isaiah a “rare individual”. After listening to the voice over a few times I have to agree – Owens is invested. There is a touching sincerity to his voice as he describes his work, step by step. To him, death is a beautiful release from earthly pain and he’s helping the dead obtain proper presentation for what lies beyond. Also interesting is the broad array of names he gives the bodies: remains, ashes, people. Despite this dichotomy I find myself liking the way he talks about death and admiring his certainty about what it means and what comes next.

When I die, I want a modest ceremony: my brain [or soul, if you like] is to be transplanted into a superior shell and launched into space. For my body I want a shrine of candles and flowers, followed by a few weeks in a crystal coffin somewhere public and a Viking cremation with my ashes let loose over Moscow. For all the young breathers to choke on.

[Thanks, Jerem!]

Health Institute Puts Viscera-Manikins on Parade

He says that the thigh rash is the worst part.

Old medical illustrations come in many flavors. Beautiful, cialis hilarious, grotesque – there’s a taste of each at NIH’s Historical Anatomies on the Web. Some 18th-century Persian illustrations peel back the subject’s skins to reveal a bright red reverse, which, coupled with the gold bracelets and the multicolored organs, gives the appearance elaborate stage costumes. A medieval battlefield surgery manual (with a very dramatic cover!) shares some tips on limb amputation. An anatomical horse prances in a field under a sky filled with flowers.  A 17th-century Persian depiction of bloodletting and venous figures reminds me of Daniel Johnston. Anime-sized gory eyes (what is even going on here?) stare at you from the pages of the Kaitai shinsho, a book illustrated by the Dutch and published in Japan. And the axe-murderer-style uterus illustrations will send chills down your spine. So… who’s hungry?