Sunday, February 7, 2016

What We Know For Sure About Things That Are False.

“Be true to your teeth and they’ll never be false to you,” my uncle used to tell me. I never understood that until…oh, a certain age. Now I do.
We’re coming up on George Washington’s birthday, which we Americans seem to celebrate ten or so days ahead of the actual date with mattress sales. Don’t ask me why. 
George Washington is famous for never telling a falsehood, at least according to popular mythology. He started losing his teeth in his twenties, owned several sets of false teeth - none of which were wooden, myth to that effect notwithstanding. One set was from gold, hippopotamus teeth and ivory, another from human teeth set in ivory. Human teeth? Yep. Forward thinking man, George Washington. Always looking for something new.  
Speaking of which, in 1882, the first patent for false teeth was issued to another American, Charles Graham. Nobody had thought of this before? Well, yes. Those hardy eaters the Etruscans had made the first set out of animal teeth about 700 BC. This remained the false tooth of choice for nearly 2500 years. But they wore out quickly, and needed constant replacement. (Your animals did not have durable teeth.) However, Charles Graham questioned what everyone “knew” about dentures and changed the lives of millions. His were the first truly durable and reusable dentures and they caught on, wobbly or not. Soon American bedrooms sported a pair or two of teeth soaking away in a bedside glass. As did the rest of the world. And in 2012, British researchers developed a procedure that might eliminate that creepy, smiling bedside glass of water. Doctors take stem cells capable of growing into a new tooth from the patient and implant them. Depending on the type of cell, it grows a specific type of tooth. What? Stem cells? Yes. However, not all stem cell research involves human embryos. (But you knew that, didn’t you?) 
The British research holds out the promise that no one will ever have to lose his uppers with that bite of an apple, and nursing home residents will no longer have the facility laundry mangle that pair of choppers that somehow lodged in a shirt pocket. More importantly, the nutritional deficiencies and diseases that come with losing one’s own teeth may become a thing of the past. All because of the stem cell research that was so nearly stopped in the 1990s.  
Science without ethics produces horrific things, but ethics without science prevents wonderful things. Just as most of us “knew” that Washington had wooden teeth, in 1490 some “knew” that the world was flat, and in 1615 that the sun revolved around the earth. So hoorah for Charles Graham, British researchers, and everyone who realizes that it’s not what we don’t know that hurts us, it’s what we know for sure that isn’t.


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