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Bodies...The Blog


Abortion: History and Statistics


The practice of pregnancy termination – abortion – became legal in the United States in 1973 after the Supreme Court's decision during the Roe v. Wade trial. Since then, nearly 50 million abortion cases have been documented in the United States. However, pregnancy termination has actually been practiced for centuries.

As early as 9th century B.C., Cambodian women underwent abusive and painful pregnancy termination. These abortions were extremely different than modern Western procedures. One of the most startling facts is that the abortion wasn't performed until the baby was nearly full-term. Practitioners waited until the fetus was big enough to be massaged out of the womb prematurely, causing its skull to crack.

Abortifacient herbs, such as silphium, were also used to terminate an unwanted or socially unacceptable pregnancy in ancient times. Such herbally-induced abortions were more similar to today's legalized morning-after pill and RU-486.


Siamese Twins: The Bunker Brothers


Chang and Eng Bunker were conjoined twins from Siam (now Thailand). Their rare condition lead to the phrase “Siamese Twins,” and captured the attention of the world. The Bunker brothers were joined at the sternum; their livers were fused, but each man still operated independently. At the time, medical professionals assumed that the brothers were joined at the heart. Although it would not have been impossible to separate them, it was considered too dangerous.

The conjoined brothers were born in 1811 to humble Siamese beginnings. A British merchant, who essentially acted as their promoter, entered the Bunkers' lives in 1829. The twins went on a world tour with P.T. Barnum’s circus and were exhibited as an oddity. Their popularity in the 1830s grew as they gave lectures and demonstrations, and eventually “Siamese Twins” became a ubiquitous phrase describing their condition.


After visiting America on their tour, Chang and Eng settled down in North Carolina, became naturalized citizens, and adopted as typical an American life as could be expected of that period. They were quite successful, both financially and socially. The brothers Americanized their names, bought a plantation, owned slaves, and eventually married two sisters. At first, their arrangement was to share a bed for four, but the sisters’ arguing and bitterness towards one another lead to separate homes for each wife. Chang and Eng spent three days with one woman and three with the next. The brothers had 21 children total: Chang fathered 10 with his wife, and Eng fathered 11.

Modern medicine relies on two contradicting theories to explain the condition of conjoined twins. The older school of thought is fission: the fertilized egg splits partially in utero. The second theory is fusion: the fertilized egg separates completely in utero, but stem cells act to reconnect the twins. At 63 years old, Eng woke up to find his brother had died in the night. A doctor was called to perform emergency surgery, but Eng refused separation. He died three hours later with his wife and children by his side.



Bubonic Plague: The Black Death


The bubonic plague was one of history’s most infamous pandemics.

Regarding the speed with which the plague killed, Italian writer Boccaccio said its victims often "ate lunch with their friends and dinner with their ancestors in paradise." The infectious agent of the bubonic plague, also known as the Black Death, was the bacterium Yersinia pestis.  It struck Europe in the 1340s, spreading from Asia on infected rat-fleas aboard trade ships. The responsible organism entered through the skin and used the lymphatic system as its host. People were typically infected when bitten by a flea carrying the plague bacteria from an infected rodent. Bubonic plague was seen in the swellings, or buboes, that inflate the lymph nodes at the neck, armpit or groin. Some recorded symptoms include coughing, fever, and black spots appearing on the skin (hence the nomenclature).

The Black Death had three manifestations (bubonic plague, pneumonic plague, and septicaemic plague), which resulted in about 75 million deaths total, of which the bubonic plague claimed 25 million. Bubonic plague resulted in death for almost one out of every three people who contracted the disease.

Black Death illustration from Toggenburg Bible 1411

Historians’ opinions are divided: some believe that Yersinia pestis could not have been to blame, this infectious agent has been found in the teeth of some plague victims. Even when the worst of the Black Death was over, smaller outbreaks continued into the 17th Century. Survivors lived in constant fear.

During the 20th century, this infectious bacteria was used by some countries to do research on and perpetrate biological warfare. In December 2003, Dr. Thomas C. Butler, a respected authority on infectious diseases and organisms at Texas Tech University, was convicted of illegally possessing samples of Yersinia pestis. He was accused and later convicted of lying about the plague bacteria whereabouts. To this day, the FBI has not recovered the samples in question.


Waterloo Teeth

Edentulous: A Brief History of Dentures


Around 700BC, Etruscans in northern Italy made dentures out of human or animal teeth. Although these materials deteriorated quickly, the dentures were easy to produce and remained popular until the mid 1800s. An important contributor to denture development was dietary changes. Sugar was the main culprit in increased tooth decay during the 18th Century. With the industrialization of Victorian England, between 1860 and 1890, British per capita sugar consumption increased 500 percent.

Ivory dentures were popular in the 1700s, made from natural materials including walrus, elephant, or hippopotamus.

George Washington teethOne of the most famous early denture wearers was the first U.S. President, George Washington. Contrary to popular belief, however, Washington's dentures were not made of wood. Washington sported some of the highest quality false teeth of the time, consisting of a denture plate made of carved hippopotamus ivory into which human teeth (along with parts of both horse and donkey teeth) were fitted. Around 1774, Alexis Duchâteau crafted the first porcelain dentures. But these were prone to chip and also tended to appear too white to be convincing. Human teeth, or "Waterloo teeth"-- named for dead soldiers' teeth plucked from the battlefield after the 1815 Battle of Waterloo-- were in higher demand. Waterloo teeth were riveted into the base of animal ivory.

In 1820, a Westminster silversmith and goldsmith named Claudius Ash was asked to craft new and improved dentures. At the time, most false teeth were still made from ivory (which was prone to discoloring) or from human teeth. The real teeth were extracted from soldiers' corpses or executed criminals, procured by grave-robbers, or even obtained from direct sale by the desperately impoverished. (What conclusions might one draw from a comparison to modern black market organ sale?) Claudius Ash mounted porcelain on 18-karat gold plates, with gold springs and swivels. These new dentures were superior both aesthetically and functionally to the older models. Still improving, from the 1850s onward, dentures were made of Vulcanite, a form of hardened rubber into which porcelain teeth were set. Claudius Ash’s company was the leading European manufacturer of dental Vulcanite. In the 20th century, acrylic resin and other plastics became materials of choice.


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