George Washington’s Teeth
This past fall, my family visited Mount Vernon and enjoyed seeing the new visitor’s center which contains an exhibit of what has been described as “The Most Famous Teeth in the World.” Although he never had wooden teeth, he did suffer from serious dental pain throughout his life.
Washington lost his first tooth at the age of 24 and it was literally downhill from there. There were no dental anesthetics, any extractions were done “cold turkey” or with the aid of hard liquor. Dental care was in its infancy. Fillings were rarely done and gold was the only restorative material. Plastics and ceramics were not available. The first impression material, Plaster of Paris, would not be invented for another 50 years.
Washington’s favorite dentist was Dr. John Greenwood. Dentist’s of those days did not graduated from a school, they learned by apprenticing themselves to another dentist. There was no licensing procedures and no examinations. When the student felt that he had learned enough, he set up practice. (I do mean “he”…the first female dentist was still over 100 years away.)
George Washington was a wealthy man, and he spent lavishly on his teeth. He would try this powder and that nostrum but he had a sweet tooth and it was all for naught. By the time that he became President, Washington had no teeth. Dr. Greenwood did his best and made his famous patient a state of the art denture…18th century style.
Dr Greenwood took thin sheets of lead that were flexible enough to be molded by hand to the jaws. Holes were drilled into the sheets and the teeth of an elk were wired into the denture with gold wire. The upper and lower dentures were held together with a hinge and small, powerful springs held the dentures open. Washington had to compress the dentures together to insert them into his mouth. The springs pushed the dentures into his jaws, holding them into place. To chew, he had to exert enough force to overcome the pressure of the springs before he could even chew. It’s no wonder that he had a stiff, wooden look to his face.
One other thing that I have not researched but catches my interest. Washington was fond of his wine…Madeira being his favorite tipple. All wines are acidic and he was wearing dentures made with lead! The acid from the wine surely leached the lead out of the dentures. Is it possible that Washington suffered from lead poisoning? We will probably never know!