The Truth about George Washington's Teeth
Written by Adam Zewe
Let's set the record straight once and for all: George Washington did not have wooden teeth. However, our nation's first president did have his share of dental problems, and wore at least four sets of dentures throughout his life.
Long before he led the Continental Army to victory over British forces, Washington began fighting a losing battle against his own teeth. He lost his first permanent tooth in 1756, at age 22, and would suffer from severe dental problems for the rest of his life. One possible cause of his tooth loss is the medicine that doctors used to treat his frequent illnesses. Calomel, a common medicine in the mid-18th century, contained a large amount of mercury, which could cause devastating tooth loss. Even though Washington ordered toothbrushes and the 18th-century equivalent of toothpaste for his Mount Vernon mansion, semi-regular brushing was not enough to save his teeth. "He was in pain throughout his entire life, starting in his early 20s. Washington's notorious fits of rage were probably due to his teeth," remarks Dr. Scott Swank, curator of the National Museum of Dentistry.
At the time of his first inauguration in 1789, Washington only had one natural tooth left in his mouth. He wore a specialized set of dentures, which fit neatly over his remaining lower left premolar. Washington's dentist, Dr. John Greenwood of New York City, hand carved the denture bases from a solid block of ivory. Small, gold springs exerted pressure onto the roof of Washington's mouth, holding the dentures in place - in theory, at least. "Washington was always complaining about how poorly they fit. He kept sending his dentures back and asking the dentist to make changes," says Dr. Swank.
Washington's uncomfortable dentures probably contributed to his loathing toward public speaking. In fact, his second inaugural address was only two paragraphs long - the shortest in history. He likely kept it brief because he had trouble keeping his dentures in his mouth. By the time of his second inauguration, he had lost his last tooth and had ordered a new set of dentures. Washington probably only wore those dentures for social occasions like his inauguration, since they were so delicate they would have been practically useless to eat with, Dr. Swank states.
So how did the rumor start about George Washington having wooden teeth? Few people understood dentures in the late 1700s, and even fewer would recognize that they were carved from ivory. "Plus, ivory stains and Washington was fond of coffee, tea and dark red wine. If you got a glimpse of his mouth, those teeth probably would have looked very wood-like," Dr. Swank says.
The irony is that the man who could not tell a lie has become the subject of one of our nation's most widely-circulated urban legends.
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