Throughout his life George Washington (1732-1799) suffered from dental problems. He lost many of his teeth while still young.
The story of his teeth reveals a great deal about the state of dentistry during his lifetime, but it also reminds us how our presidents are rarely permitted to show pain or weakness of any kind.
Presidential Health Problems Are Common
We are well aware of the toll that the presidency takes on the men who are elected based on early and later photographs of them. Less frequently addressed are the various health issues that many presidents have faced. These matters would have made many of their days in office an additional personal trial.
Franklin D. Roosevelt was severely incapacitated by polio, and his wheelchair was never permitted in photographs. Grover Cleveland had a cancerous lesion in his mouth, and the surgery to remove it was performed on a yacht so the press would not know. And only after his death did we learn that John F. Kennedy suffered from debilitating back pain.
George Washington’s Teeth Not Wooden
It has been widely reported that George Washington’s false teeth were made of wood, but Ron Chernow, author of Washington: A Life (Penguin 2010) reports that this was not true. According to the biography, some of his teeth were fashioned from ivory, but some were made from human or animal teeth. (In Washington’s financial documents, he writes of a purchase of nine teeth from slaves.)
Chernow speculates that the myth that the teeth were made from wood probably originated because those that were made from ivory may have stained along along hairline fractures in the ivory. This might have made them appear to be made of a grainy wood.
In addition to the chronic pain he suffered, Washington was very self-conscious about how the substitute teeth made him look. In one letter to his dentist he commented, they “bulge my lips out in such a manner as to make them appear considerably swelled.”
One pair of his dentures was made by scientist and portrait painter, Charles Wilson Peale. Peale, too, suffered mouth problems. He began making dentures for himself and may have offered to make a set for Washington. The two may have first met when Peale arrived to paint Washington’s portrait. Peale’s portrait of Washington is the earliest known portrait we have of the first president.
To make the dentures, Peale used both elephant teeth and human teeth for the lower dentures. Experts think the upper teeth were made from the teeth of dairy cattle. All these various teeth were placed in a lead base, and the plates were connected by steel springs. In all likelihood, Washington’s teeth may have clacked as he talked. (These dentures are now preserved at George Washington’s estate, Mount Vernon.)
Because dentures of the day were so uncomfortable, dentists routinely prescribed opiate-based powder to use to alleviate pain.
Dentistry was in its Infancy
In the late 1700s, dentistry was extremely basic. Alcohol would have been the most common way to try to deaden a person’s pain when a dentist had to pull a tooth. (Anesthesia for dentistry was not introduced until the 1840s.) There was some understanding about the importance to keeping one’s teeth clean, but there was no understanding of how to heal swollen gums.
As early as 1760, when Washington would have been only 28, one of Washington’s aides wrote that Washington generally kept his mouth firmly closed but when he opened it he revealed “defective” teeth. Shortly after Washington’s marriage to Martha, the household records showed that he ordered from London six bottles of a “brew” that was designed to cleanse teeth and cure toothaches.
During the Revolutionary War, Washington relied on a dentist by the name of Baker. Unfortunately for Washington, one of his missives to Baker was in a box with a set of his dentures. The package was intercepted by the British. After obtaining the letter with the teeth, the British took great pleasure in making fun of Washington. This caused Washington a great deal of distress.
At some point, Washington was contacted by Dr. Jean-Pierre Le Mayeur, a French dentist, who had heard the gossip about Washington’s teeth. The French had actually advanced in dentistry more rapidly than the English or the Americans had. When Dr. Le Mayeur made his services available to Washington, Washington accepted. Le Mayeur became a frequent guest at Mount Vernon. He loved horses and riding, and so his visits may have been mutually beneficial.
Washington’s letters to Le Mayeur were written in veiled language, never directly mentioning dental work or dentures, probably because of his embarrassment over the previously intercepted letter. Le Mayeur had had some luck with implanting teeth for at least one patient, but if he tried such a thing with Washington, it did not work. By the time Washington was inaugurated in 1789 he had only one tooth remaining–the first bicuspid on the left of his lower jaw.
New Dentist for President Washington
After assuming the presidency, Washington relied on the dental services of dentist John Greenwood, a New York dentist. Since the government was based in New York City at that time, this made it easier for Washington to have his mouth attended to. When the seat of government was moved to Philadelphia in 1790, President Washington was regretful about being separated from his dentist.
Greenwood tried to save Washington’s remaining tooth, and the dentures he fashioned for him were designed to anchor to that one tooth. The dentures were made of real teeth set in ivory. (Scientists at the Smithsonian did an evaluation of these teeth and felt that two of the teeth may have been from a hippopotamus, others from an elephant). The upper and lower dentures were connected by curved gold springs in the back of the mouth. Beneath the lower plate of the dentures was an inscription: “Under jaw. This was the Great Washington’s teeth by J. Greenwood. First one made by J. Greenwood 1789.” (The New York Times, 3-30-1991)
The apparatus meant that Washington was limited to eating only soft foods as dentures were not yet adequate for real chewing, and the springs made public speaking painful and difficult.
Washington must have written to Greenwood about the fact that his teeth were discoloring. Greenwood wrote back that the port wine Washington drank was having an ill effect on his dentures and darkening them: “I advise you to either take them out after dinner and put them in clean water and put in another set or clean them with a brush and some chalk scraped fine.”
As with his correspondence with Le Mayeur, Washington’s letters to Greenwood were secretive: “The contents of the box [sent to Washington by Greenwood] were perfectly agreeable to me and will…answer the end proposed very well.” While Greenwood offered to come personally to make adjustments and may have done so, their correspondence makes it clear that Washington tinkered with them on his own as well. His diary entry for January 17, 1790, notes: “Still indisposed with an aching tooth and swelled and inflamed gum.”
In 1796, Greenwood and Washington finally had to give up on the remaining tooth. Greenwood pulled the tooth and set it aside while he finished up with him important patient. He kept the tooth for himself.
Later, he drilled a hole through the center of the tooth so it could be suspended from a watch chain by a thread or chain. But Greenwood worried that the tooth needed more protection, so he had it encased in an oval gold locket with glass on two sides. It bears the inscription: “In New York 1790, Jn Greenwood made Pres Geo Washington a whole sett of teeth. The enclosed tooth is the last one which grew in his head.”
The lower denture and Greenwood’s pocket watch, chain and fob were donated to the New York Academy of Medicine in 1937 by Greenwood’s descendants.
Living with Pain
It was sometimes noted that Washington had a hair-trigger temper, and for anyone who has ever had a headache or a toothache, we can certainly see why.
Our round-the-clock coverage of recent presidents makes it clear that staying in bed with a headache or a bad cold is rarely an option for an American leader. While Washington might have had a little more freedom to take a day off now and then without the world being aware of it, the country’s circumstances likely dictated that staying home to nurse one’s pain was rarely an option. We can only admire the strength and fortitude he showed in putting his country’s needs ahead of his own despite living with what must have been constant discomfort.
To read about George Washington’s childhood, click here.