All The President’s Dentures

All The President’s Dentures

In honor of President’s week, we thought it would be fun to take a look at what’s true and false about the teeth of America’s most famous founding father, George Washington.

Despite being an accomplished soldier and statesman, Washington was never the picture of good dental hygiene. He began losing his teeth at age 24, and his diaries point to a lifetime of problems including toothache, inflamed gum and worst of all, ill-fitting dentures. Washington visited numerous dentists and tried a variety of cures, but nothing helped to relieve his agony.

In fact, Washington’s dental problems affected his public image. Ill-fitting dentures changed the shape of his face, and while Washington was never known as a speaker, his increasing discomfort and insecurity about his face led him to speak even less in public in later life.

One enduring myth about Washington is that he wore wooden dentures. It’s quite possible that his dentures, took on a wooden complexion, but wood was never used in their construction. Instead, it’s likely that his teeth were made from materials like bone, Hippopotamus Ivory and human teeth.

The use of human teeth can be seen as a bit troubling, because at times Washington did purchase teeth from slaves. One account details Washington’s purchase of 9 teeth from “Negroes” for 122 shillings. It’s not clear if Washington intended to use these teeth for dentures, or if he used the teeth at all. This might seem morbid, but purchasing human teeth was a fairly common practice in colonial times. Later in life, Washington even re-used some of his own lost teeth in a set of replacement dentures.

Hail To The Teeth

In fact, Washington’s teeth helped to further the cause of the American Revolution.

Washington, like many future Presidents, was image conscious and he always kept his dental troubles top secret. In 1781 a mail packet was intercepted by the British, among the items intercepted was a letter to his dentist. In the letter he dictated that he had “little prospect of being in Philadelph. soon…” and a request that his tooth scrapers  be sent to him outside New York by mail.

When Sir Henry Clinton, commander of the British forces saw this he was convinced that the other correspondence must also be genuine. This convinced the British that the American and French forces in New York City would not be marching south to Yorktown. Clinton’s failure to reinforce or rescue General Cornwallis led to the complete British defeat at Yorktown on October 19, 1781.

After that, Washington was free to visit his dentist any time he needed to. However, despite his best efforts to save his teeth, Washington was down to just one tooth at the time of his inauguration as the first President of the United States. This final survivor was finally pulled by in 1796, and Washington allowed his dentist to retain this famous tooth as a memento.