Written on Monday, Feb 15, 2021
There are many myths that surround our early Presidents, such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. One of the biggest myths in regard to these men is that of George Washington’s false teeth. Many people believe he had wooden dentures after losing his natural pearly whites to tooth decay. But the reality of his oral health and false teeth is not so simple.
George Washington was a very healthy man, even considered to have a strong constitution in comparison to others of his time. But he struggled throughout his lifetime with oral health problems.
At only 24, Washington noted in his journal that he paid a Dr. Watson five shillings for a tooth extraction. From there, his journal recorded accounts of more tooth extractions, aching teeth, infected gums, and other oral health problems. One of his biggest complaints was of his ill-fitting dentures. He spent a great deal of money trying to maintain good oral health. This money was spent on toothbrushes, dental visits, toothache pain reliever, teeth scrapers, and cleaning solutions.
It is unclear why people believe George Washington’s dentures were made of wood. This is a myth. He never had wooden false teeth during his lifetime. In fact, you can see one pair of his dentures on display at his home of Mount Vernon, now a museum.
Washington’s false teeth included partial and full dentures at different stages of his life. They were made of metal alloys, including lead, tin, copper, brass, and silver. The false teeth in these metal frames were actual teeth of other humans, a cow or horse tooth, and elephant ivory carved into a human tooth form.
During the American Revolution, Washington visited a French dentist named Dr. Le Mayeur who was once loyal to caring for the teeth of high ranking British soldiers. The dentist had, in fact, provided dental care to the British Commander Sir Henry Clinton in New York. This dentist escaped from British-occupied New York City in 1781 and crossed back into American-held territory. George Washington became a lifelong friend and patient of Le Mayeur’s. The dentist continued providing Washington’s oral health care at Mount Vernon after the war.
Washington was known for regularly brushing his teeth using a modern style toothbrush like the ones we use today. He also used dental powders, the historic equivalent to toothpaste. But he continued losing his teeth to tooth decay.
Washington was embarrassed about his poor oral health. He was very bothered by the British army’s interception of one of his personal letters in which he requested dental cleaning tools called tooth scrapers. Later, Washington wrote another letter to his Mount Vernon property manager to have some of the President’s lost teeth removed from a secret drawer in his desk. He wanted them mailed to him on the war front in New York. Washington was seeking a new set of dentures with his original teeth placed in the fitting.
Washington purchased nine teeth from his own Mount Vernon workers. Also, he paid 122 shillings for these teeth, buying them from his friend and dentist Dr. Le Mayeur. It is not known whether these teeth were sold willingly or whether Washington’s slaves were permitted to deny the tooth extractions. The money is presumed to have gone to Dr. Le Mayeur and not the tooth donors.
By the time he became President in 1789, General Washington only had one natural tooth left in his mouth. Dentist Dr. John Greenwood performed a tooth extraction in 1796. The dentist kept this tooth as a memento with Washington’s approval. He had it encased in glass and wore it like a charm on his watch-chain.
Because of his oral health problems, Washington’s face shape changed. This is clear in portraits from his early life, through to those of his later years. Washington complained to Dr. Greenwood about his poorly fitted dentures that made his lips bulge out.
Mrs. Washington also wore dentures by the time the President started his second term. She needed these dentures replaced in 1796, according to archived letters. In a letter from the President to a Mr. Whitelock, the First Lady requested bigger dentures with thicker and longer front teeth. Because of her own oral health problems, Martha urged her children and grandchildren to take great care of their own teeth.
We can all learn lessons from George Washington’s oral health problems. Lastly, keep your teeth healthy and strong by visiting Carolina Dental Arts in Raleigh or Goldsboro today.