George Washington might have had the most renowned set of false teeth in American history. In celebration of Fourth of July, today we’re serving up a very Presidential post about George Washington’s teeth, and the many dental issues that beset the unfortunately stern-faced Founding Father.
The famous claim that George Washington wore wooden teeth is in fact an urban legend. But Washington did own several sets of dentures, made from varying combinations of hippopotamus ivory, human teeth, and metal. According to the accounting record in Mount Vernon’s Ledger Book B, some teeth may have been pulled from Washington’s slaves, but this claim has very little evidence to go off of, and is therefore the subject of much controversy among historians.
Dental issues plagued Washington for most of his adult life, most likely due to factors that were common at the time, such as a poor diet, disease, and lack of oral hygiene. As a result, Washington began to experience tooth decay, tooth lost, and pain in his twenties, and continued to suffer tooth-related pain throughout his life. By the time Washington was inaugurated at age 57, he had only one real tooth left.
Washington enlisted John Greenwood, a former Revolutionary soldier and a pioneer in American dentistry, to fashion him a set of teeth that were befitting of a President. Greenwood made dentures of hippopotamus ivory, gold wire, and brass screws which held human teeth. Greenwood even left a hole in the dentures to accommodate Washington’s single tooth as he believed a dentist should “never extract a tooth…[when] there is a possibility of saving it.” When Washington finally lost this tooth as well, he gave it to Greenwood, who saved this cherished item in a special case.
Though Washington’s dentures were created by some of the best dentists the late 18th century had to offer, they were visually very unsightly. Keeping his false teeth looking pearly white was a constant chore, and Washington often shipped them off to Greenwood for treatment. Without regular care and cleaning, the false teeth would easily turn brown, and their occasionally-unsightly appearance may have started the rumor that they were made from wood.
Far from being unattractive, however, the dentures were bulky and caused the President almost constant pain and discomfort. They also forced the President’s lips to, as he once wrote, “bulge” in an unnatural fashion. This disfigurement is particularly evident in Gilbert Stuart’s famous 1796 painting of Washington—the same portrait that appears on the one-dollar bill.
You can avoid our first President’s fate by taking care of your teeth with all the technology and knowledge this century has available to you. If you are looking for a Hudson NC dentist who specializes in tooth whitening, root canals, crowns, and bridges, call today to schedule an appointment!