Tales from the Operatory Part IV: George Washington

Despite his legendary physical strength and an iron constitution, George Washington’s failing teeth were a source of regular suffering throughout his entire life. At age 24, Washington recorded in his diary that he paid 5 shillings to a “Doctor Watson” who removed one of his teeth. Letters and diary entries later in his life make regular reference to aching teeth, lost teeth, inflamed gums, ill-fitting dentures, and a host of other dental miseries. Payments to dentists and purchases of toothbrushes, teeth scrapers, denture files, toothache medication, and cleaning solutions are also regularly present in Washington’s communications throughout his life.

The legend that George Washington had wooden teeth was false.  If he had wooden teeth they would have been dissolved by his saliva.  It’s quite possible that some of his dentures, particularly after they had been stained, took on a wooden complexion, but no wood was ever used in the construction of any of his dental fittings.

Throughout his life, Washington employed numerous full and partial dentures that were constructed of materials including human, and probably cow and horse teeth, ivory (possibly elephant), lead-tin alloy, copper alloy (possibly brass), and silver alloy, even including his own extracted teeth.

The British had a French Dentist providing dental services to their high-ranking officers, including Sir Henry Clinton, the commander of the British forces.  Dr. Jean-Pierre Le Mayeur escaped from the British-occupied New York City and passed through the American lines.  He was so disgusted by the derogatory comments made by a British officer against the Franco-American alliance that he packed up his dental tools and went to find the Americans.  Once it was determined that he was sincere in his desire to aid the American cause General Washington eagerly sought his services.  Washington and LeMayeur became quite close with Dr. LeMayeur frequently visiting Mount Vernon after the Revolutionary War.

Despite his best efforts at maintaining oral health, Washington was plagued by pain, making it difficult to speak publicly—an important part of leading an army or a nation.

He wrote of tooth pain, ill-fitting dentures & the multiple extractions that led to them. His first extraction came in 1756, & would eventually wear a full set of dentures by 1789. Washington had four sets of dentures made.

Historians assert that Washington must have been in much pain because of his teeth. By his 1789 inauguration, Washington had only one real tooth in his head. The rest were false teeth.  Created by New York dentist Dr. John Greenwood, a dental pioneer, Washington’s false teeth were a technological marvel of the 18th century. And they still fit poorly.

Lead was used to create the top and the bottom bases that fit against Washington’s upper and lower jaw. No wooden teeth were ever used. The upper row of the dentures displayed at Mount Vernon consists of horses’ and donkeys’ teeth and the lower row sports a mix of cow’s teeth, elephant and walrus ivory, and actual human teeth. A wire runs through a hole drilled in each tooth to hold it to the base. Metal springs on each side allowed Washington to open his mouth. But to keep his mouth closed, Washington had to apply pressure to the springs, thus creating a slight grimace as he clenched his teeth to keep his mouth shut.

In addition, Washington’s dentures hurt. He complained in a 1797 letter to Dr. John Greenwood that his dentures were “already too wide, and too projecting for the parts they rest upon; which causes both upper and lower lip to bulge out, as if swelled.” Some historians believe that the ill-fitting dentures made Washington self-conscious, causing him to be reluctant to speak.

Some historians believe that Washington’s problematic teeth helped the revolutionaries defeat the British at Yorktown. Prior to the battle, the British intercepted a mail packet containing Washington’s letter to his dentist stating that Washington had “little prospect of being in Philadelphia soon” so Washington requested tooth scrapers to be sent to him outside of New York.

When Sir Henry Clinton, commander of the British forces in North America read the letter, he assumed that Washington would not be marching south through Philadelphia to threaten Cornwallis in Yorktown, VA. Clinton did not move quickly to protect Cornwallis. However, unbeknown to Clinton, Washington, and Rochambeau had made plans to move south. They successfully trapped and defeated Cornwallis at Yorktown, on October 19, 1781. And that’s how teeth played a biting part in the British defeat.

If you look at the portraits of George Washington you would notice a change in his facial shape, particularly around the lips.  This includes the portrait in the one-dollar bill.  The man had to be in excruciating pain for a good portion of his life.

Thankfully the science of dentistry has truly progressed since George Washington’s time.  Even though President Washington did his best to care for his teeth, because of other medications that he took, it played a huge factor in the outcome of his teeth.

Columbia Dental believes hygiene is the key to your oral health.  We have dental hygienists to do the first steps in your cleanings to help prevent what happened to George Washington happen to you.    However, if you need dentures, Columbia Dental is the practice you want to come to.  How much better a life President Washington could have lived if he had implants and implant support prostheses.  The staining of the dentures he wore made it look like wooden teeth which brought about the myth of his wooden dentures.  Come to Columbia Dental where our implant-supported prosthesis looks and acts like your original teeth

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