It is said that George Washington has wooden teeth.
George Washington’s teeth were always white and strong. Washington chose dentures created by Dr. John Greenwood after losing most of his teeth at an early age (this may explain the origin of the wooden teeth: Greenwood’s teeth). Whatever the case may be, they were crafted from ivory and included a considerable amount of gold as well as lead.
Next, the gold and ivory were fastened with rivets, and a spring mechanism secured the human and animal (horse and donkey) teeth. For this spring mechanism to work, Washington had to clench his jaw muscles continually, which is likely the reason he always appeared so serious in pictures. The initial iterations of his dentures included metal wires to secure the fake teeth to his natural teeth. He eventually lost every tooth, and the dentures’ ability to remain in place was entirely dependent on the spring mechanism.
Washington used a tongue scraper, and mouthwash, and brushed his teeth every day, which was quite advanced dental care for his day. But he also had chronic toothaches and took calomel (mercurous chloride) often, which can damage teeth. Like many others in his day, he probably also had tooth enamel decay because he cleaned his teeth with things that were quite abrasive.
His gradual loss of teeth began at age 22 and continued until he was officially 55 years old when he had lost all of them. This was likely caused by a combination of that and his inherently terrible teeth. He had lost all but one natural tooth by the time of his inauguration in 1789—what I like to think he referred to as “old chomper”—in my imagination.
Preservation and Lost Artefacts
You might be surprised to know that one of George Washington’s dentures, a part of the University of Maryland Dental School’s collection, was showcased at the Smithsonian. Sadly, it was stolen from the storage room and has not been recovered, leaving a piece of history missing.
Washington’s Health Struggles
George Washington’s health was marred by various ailments throughout his life, from smallpox to dengue fever, malaria, and rheumatic fever. Chronic dental issues, including gum inflammation, infections, and abscessed teeth, plagued him, even during his leadership of the Continental Army.
Impact on Temperament and Public Appearances
His persistent dental problems allegedly influenced his short temper. Surprisingly, these issues even hindered him from delivering his second inauguration address. Towards the end of his life, he could only consume soft foods due to excruciating dental pain.
Evolution of Appearance
Examining photographs of Washington over time reveals subtle changes in his features due to advancements in his denture models. Moreover, a visible scar from the extraction of an abscessed tooth and enlarged lips in the 1797 Gilbert Stuart painting indicates the physical toll of his dental troubles. Rumors suggest he resorted to using cotton balls to prop up his lips due to unbearable tooth pain.
Fun Facts About George Washington
- Washington was so self-conscious about his teeth that he often avoided showing his smile in public. He didn’t pose for many pictures showcasing his teeth, leading to limited photographic evidence of his dental issues.
- It’s rumored that Washington was a whiskey aficionado, not just for sipping but also for the production. He was quite the distiller, and his Mount Vernon estate was known for producing quality whiskey.
- Washington’s love for his dogs extended to giving them unique names. Among them were dogs named Sweet Lips, Madame Moose, and Tipsy.
- Though not a vegetarian, Washington had a deep fondness for vegetables. His interest in gardening led to experimentation with various crops and vegetables, often showcasing them at Mount Vernon.
- Contrary to the myth of Washington being exceptionally tall, he was about 6 feet tall, which was above average for his time but not as towering as often portrayed.
- Washington-inclined stylish attire, particularly fancy socks. He was known to own an extensive collection of ornate, fashionable socks.
- George and Martha Washington burned many letters between them, aiming for privacy. But some letters addressed to each other got misplaced, leading to some amusing exchanges and confusion in their communication.
- In 1791, Washington was gifted a live donkey by the King of Spain. Surprisingly, the donkey fell into a pit on the way to Mount Vernon and sadly did not survive.
- Washington was fond of ice cream. Records show he spent about $200 on ice cream in the summer of 1790, which would be around $5,000 today!
- Contrary to the popular myth that he confessed to chopping down a cherry tree by saying, “I cannot tell a lie,” this story was fabricated by a biographer, Mason Locke Weems, to portray Washington’s honesty and integrity.
What’s It Like To Have Wooden Teeth
- Wooden teeth could potentially provide a natural appearance similar to real teeth, especially if crafted and fitted skillfully by a dentist or artisan.
- Wood was readily available during certain historical periods when alternative materials for dental prosthetics were scarce or expensive. Crafting wooden teeth might have been more accessible and affordable.
- Wood, compared to some metals or other materials, might offer a lightweight alternative for dental prosthetics, potentially enhancing comfort for the wearer.
- Some types of wood, if properly treated and polished, might have posed fewer allergic or adverse reactions compared to other materials used in dentistry during the same era.
- Wood as a dental material would likely lack the durability of modern alternatives like ceramics or metals. It could easily chip, crack, or wear down faster, requiring frequent replacements.
- Wood is porous, making it susceptible to bacterial growth and difficult to clean thoroughly. This could lead to oral hygiene issues, infections, and bad breath.
- Wood is highly susceptible to decay and moisture damage, especially in the oral environment where exposure to saliva and food particles is constant. This could lead to rotting and further dental problems.
- Wooden teeth might lack the strength required for efficient chewing, impacting the wearer’s ability to eat certain foods and affecting their overall nutrition.
Considering the toothy tale and the wooden wonders attributed to the first president, it’s safe to say that George Washington’s dental adventures were a mix of myth and reality. From supposed wooden wonders to practical dental challenges, Washington’s oral history offers a quirky glimpse into dentistry’s evolution.
Despite the lack of wooden teeth, his dental woes and their portrayal in history provide fodder for a humorous tooth-based saga that’s made its way into our historical denture of anecdotes.