George Washington was naturally somber in mood and temperament. It’s rare that he was seen smiling. Why? His teeth were a mess. And no, they were not wooden! Find out the facts and fiction to learn more about our first president’s troublesome teeth—and be thankful for modern dentistry!
During his long military career, Washington gained a reputation as a firm, no-nonsense leader who maintained a stiff upper lip in public. To many, he never looked very happy and, in fact, never flashed a wide, exuberant grin. It turns out that his teeth were a life-long problem, which he references in letters and diaries throughout his life, starting at a young age.
Washington’s Dental Problems
Washington’s dental problems began in the mid-1700s, when he was in his early 20s. Frequent episodes of inflamed gums and abscessed teeth were soon followed by yearly tooth extractions, which began at age 24. At that time, specialized saws, files, hammers, chisels, and hand drills were the well-equipped dentist’s tools of choice. Unfortunately, those implements, even in the hands of a skilled practitioner, often inflicted more pain on patients than relief. Over the next 30 years, Washington sought help from six dentists and went through several sets of clunky, ill-fitting false teeth. Then he met Dr. John Greenwood who became his personal dentist.
For the founding father, Greenwood fashioned a set of upper and lower dentures from hippopotamus teeth that he filed, sanded, and hand-polished. The dentures were held together by two coiled steel springs attached to the back of the dental plates. This was meant to keep the dental work properly aligned and to ensure “horizontal control.” In reality, it caused Washington’s lips to protrude as though he were puckering up for a kiss, impeded his speech, made eating difficult, and caused such unbearable pain that he sometimes took laudanum, a powerful painkiller.
George Washington’s false teeth supported by springs. What a monstrosity of a contraption!
Teeth From Fresh Cadavers
At age 57, with his presidential inauguration just weeks away, Washington had only one real tooth left in his mouth! He decided to have his lower denture redone. Eight new teeth, said to have been taken from fresh cadavers, were affixed to the president-elect’s lower denture and held in place by gold rivets. Etched into the hippopotamus ivory was the inscription “This Was Great Washington’s Teeth,” along with the name “J. Greenwood.” These dentures helped Washington mouth the Oath of Office, though they slipped and clicked as he spoke.
Throughout his life, the commander-in-chief was self-conscious about the way his dentures contorted his face. On December 12, 1798, at age 66, Washington returned the dentures to Greenwood for a refitting. Along with them, he included a letter describing his concerns and the nature of his discomfort. It seems that the springs that provided for horizontal control of the dentures, or “bars,” as he referred to them, were so stiff that he had to exert considerable jaw pressure to close his mouth properly. “The principal thing you have to attend to,” wrote Washington, “is to let the upper bar fall back from the lower one … for I find it is the bars alone, both above and below, that give the lips the pointing and swelling appearance… .” Without the necessary adjustment, he wrote, “it will have the effect of forcing the lip out just under the nose.”
Brush Your Teeth!
Greenwood fixed Washington’s dentures and charged $15 to do it, but in a letter accompanying their return, the dentist chastised the founding father on his oral hygiene. Greenwood wrote that Washington’s teeth were “very black … occasioned either by your soaking them in port wine or drinking it.” The dentist noted that if the president wanted to drink port after dinner, he should take out his new dentures and put in an older pair, and that if he couldn’t be bothered with switching dentures, he would “have to clean them right afterwards with a brush and some chalk dust.” In response to Washington’s other concern, getting an even shade of tooth color, Greenwood wrote, “If you want your teeth more yellower, soak them in Broth or pot liqueur, but not in tea or acid.”
Though thankful for Dr. Greenwood’s efforts, George Washington remained a man of few words—and even fewer smiles—until his death one year later on December 14, 1799.
–Author John Martalo has written for The Rotarian, Ambassador Magazine,and Cricket, among others. His interest in false teeth began several years ago when he found someone’s upper denture on top of his mailbox. Today, that denture serves as a paperweight.
Enjoy learning about George Washington? Did you know that The Old Farmer’s Almanac was founded during his presidency? Here are two more articles from the Almanac archives: