New Morbid Terminology: Phossy Jaw, The Occupational Disease of Matchstick Makers

Written by: Katy Meyers Emery

Primary Source: Bones Don’t Lie, February 10, 2016

Pipe Notch- similar to the Tailor's notch though the latter would be much smaller, from Smithsonian Museum of Natural History

Pipe Notch- similar to the Tailor’s notch though the latter would be much smaller, from Smithsonian Museum of Natural History

There are a range of diseases, traumas and skeletal markers that can occur regularly with certain types of occupations. One historic example is called Tailor’s Notches. These are small indentations found in the front teeth of an individual. The notches are due to holding sewing needles between the teeth. Tailors and seamstresses usually put their needles or pins between their teeth in order to hold them while they are cutting or moving fabric. Over time, the teeth are actually worn down in these areas, and small pin or needle sized notches are formed. Another interesting historic case is known as Shoemaker’s Femur. An individual who is making a shoe will place the materials against their leg to provide support when nailing the heel into the leather of the shoe’s body. Due to repeated minor bruising and trauma to the upper leg, the bone reacts and begins to grow abnormally. This is seen in the skeleton as new bone growth on the anterior (inside) of the femur. These cases (both of which are from the Smithsonian) are fascinating because they give us insight into the occupations or activities of the deceased- something we usually don’t have much information about.

While these two are minor alterations to the skeleton, there are more destructive and problematic issues that can occur with certain jobs.

  • Radium jaw- young women who contracted radiation poisoning due to painting radium on watches to allow them to glow
  • Coal miner’s pneumoconiosis or black lung- individuals who work in coal mines and suffer from poor breathing conditions
  • Chimney sweeps’ carcinoma- chimney sweeps developed cancer in their scrotums due to the irritation caused by soot

What do all of these have in common? The problem is named after the occupation!

Archival drawing from 19th c of phossy jaw by Mutter, via Gizmodo

Archival drawing from 19th c of phossy jaw by Mutter, via Gizmodo

Phossy jaw is the necrosis of the jaw by phosphorus- whereby the bone of the jaw is not given proper blood flow or nutrients, and essentially dies and collapses. It was an occupational disease associated with individuals working with white or yellow phosphorus without the proper safeguards. It is most commonly associated with individuals who were working in the matchmaking industry (i.e. creating matchsticks, not pairing up potential couples on dates) during the 19th and early 20th century. We have historic documentation of phossy jaw, through photos, archival documents, and other records. But what about bioarchaeological evidence?

A new study by Roberts et al. (2016) examines a possible bioarchaeological case for phossy jaw. The skeleton under investigation was excavated in 2010 from a Quaker burial ground found in North Tyneside. The cemetery dated from 1711–1857 CE, and included 244 individual graves and 18 charnel features.  While the community of Quakers was likely separate from the city, they may have been experiencing the same changes occurring across the country. This post-medieval era in England was one of dramatic population growth and industrialization, with commercialization of agriculture driving once rural farmers into cities to work in factories to survive. The conditions in the city were horrifying- there were problems with waste management, air pollution, dreadful working conditions, lack of clean living space, and more.

Individual 69, excavated from the Quaker burial ground, was determined to be between 11.5 and 13.5 years old, and sex could not be determined using the bone or DNA. The teeth of the individual had evidence of enamel hypoplasia- disruption in the growth of the teeth due to childhood stress that leaves lines in the enamel. Pitting and new bone formation on the interior and exterior of the skull, and new bone formation on the long bones are consistent with the broken blood vessels that occur due to scurvy- vitamin C deficiency. Bending in the long bones also suggests that they may have been suffering from rickets- vitamin D deficiency, which in turn prevents calcium and phosphorus from being absorbed into the bone. There were numerous other non-specific pathologies including new bone growth and destruction on the ribs, vertebrae and elbow joint, which may indicate tuberculosis.

Individual 69's mandible showing the destruction to the bone, via Roberts et al. 2016

Individual 69’s mandible showing the destruction to the bone, via Roberts et al. 2016

The most interesting find for individual 69 was the major loss of bone in the jaw found with a mass of bone. The bone changes in the mandible may represent osteomyelitis due to exposure to phosphorus. Osteomyelitis is an infection of the bone which causes bone growth and loss, and can lead to the accumulation of a mass of dead bone in the body around the infected area. When an individual is repeatedly exposed to phosphorus, and they already have poor dental health, it can lead to the growth of sickly bone and destruction of healthy bone in the jaw. It is highly possible that individual 69 was exposed to phosphorus in addition to being sick from malnutrition and potentially tuberculosis.

Phossy jaw- the destruction of the jaw due to phosphorus exposure could occur because the individual worked in an area where this material was common, like matchstick factory, or could be due to it being used as a medicine. There is archival evidence that phosphorus was used to treat sickness in the 19th century, and that white phosphorus was used to treat rickets in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The matchstick industry was thriving in this region during the period that the individual died- during the 19th century, matchstick factories were thriving across England, and often employed extremely poor individuals, particularly children between 6 and 12 years old.

We don’t know if this is indeed phossy jaw- but it is highly possible. There is little bioarchaeological investigation into this phenomenon, but we know from archival records that it was an issue among those working in matchstick factories. There may be more cases out there that we just haven’t identified yet. So next time you pick up a match, think about your new morbid terminology- phossy jaw.

Works Cited

ResearchBlogging.orgRoberts, C., Caffell, A., Filipek-Ogden, K., Gowland, R., & Jakob, T. (2016). ‘Til Poison Phosphorous Brought them Death’: A potentially occupationally-related disease in a post-medieval skeleton from north-east England. International Journal of Paleopathology, 13, 39-48 DOI: 10.1016/j.ijpp.2015.12.001

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Katy Meyers Emery
Katy is currently a graduate student studying mortuary archaeology at Michigan State University. Her academic interests are in mortuary and bioarchaeology, with a specific interest in connecting the physical remains to the mortuary context. Along with this, she is also interested in Digital Humanities, and the integration of technology into academia, as well as public archaeology and outreach.
Katy Meyers Emery

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