George Washington's teeth

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GWashingtons teeth (cropped).jpg

American President George Washington's teeth began to fall out before he reached the age of 30, and he eventually lost them all. During his lifetime, he had at least four sets of dentures made to replace them.

Natural teeth[edit]

In 1756, when Washington was 24 years old, a dentist pulled his first tooth.[1] According to his diary, he paid 5 shillings to a "Doctr Watson" for the removal. His diary also regularly mentioned troubles such as aching teeth and lost teeth.[2] John Adams said that Washington attributed the loss of his teeth to using them to crack Walnuts, but modern historians have suggested that mercury(I) chloride (calomel), which Washington was given to treat smallpox, probably contributed to the loss.[3]

On April 30, 1789, the date of his presidential inauguration, although he had mostly dentures, he had only one remaining natural tooth, a premolar.[4] During that same year, he began wearing full dentures.

Washington's last tooth was given as a gift and keepsake to his dentist John Greenwood.[5]

Dentures[edit]

Washington's teeth.jpg

During his lifetime, Washington had four sets of dentures. He began wearing partial dentures by 1781.[5] Despite many people believing they were made of wood, they contained no wood. They were actually made of slave teeth, as well as other materials such as hippopotamus ivory, brass and gold.[6][7] The dentures had metal fasteners, springs to force them open, as well as bolts to keep them together.

Records at Mount Vernon show that he bought teeth from slaves.[8] It is important to note that while Washington paid these enslaved people for their teeth it does not mean they had a real option to refuse his request. [9] The poor and enslaved had been selling teeth as a means of making money since the Middle Ages, which were sold as dentures or implants to those of financial means. During the Revolution, French dentist Jean Pierre Le Moyer provided services in tooth transplantation. In May of 1784, Washington paid several unnamed slaves 122 shillings for a total of nine teeth to be implanted by a French doctor, who became a frequent guest on the plantation over the next few years. While it is unconfirmed that these purchased teeth were for Washington himself, his payment for them suggests that they were in fact for his use, as does a comment from a letter to his wartime clerk Richard Varick: "I confess I have been staggered in my belief in the efficacy of transplantion," he wrote. Washington used teeth sourced from slaves to improve his appearance, a subject of frequent discomfort to him.[10]

He took the oath of office while wearing a special set of dentures made from ivory, brass and gold built for him by dentist John Greenwood.[6]

Washington's face in the Athenaeum Portrait and the one-dollar bill.

According to his diaries, Washington's dentures disfigured his mouth and often caused him pain, for which he took laudanum.[11] Washington once wrote that his lips would "bulge" in an unnatural way. This distortion is noticeable on his image on the one-dollar bill, an image taken from the Athenaeum Portrait, a 1796 unfinished painting by Gilbert Stuart.[6] He once wrote to his dentist, Greenwood, to avoid modifying the dentures "which will, in the least degree force the lips out more than now do, as it does this too much already."[12] Apart from the disfiguration caused by the dentures, the distress may also be apparent in many of the portraits painted while he was still in office.[11][13][a] He spent constant effort maintaining his dentures, and often had them shipped to Greenwood, for maintenance.[1]

The mistaken belief that Washington's dentures were wooden was widely accepted by 19th century historians and appeared as fact in school textbooks until well into the 20th century. The possible origin of this myth is that the ivory teeth quickly became stained and may have had the appearance of wood to observers. A letter from Greenwood to Washington in 1798 advised more thorough cleaning since: "the sett you sent me from Philadelphia...was very black...Port wine being sower takes of[f] all the polish".[14]

The only existing complete set of Washington's dentures are owned by the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, who own and operate George Washington's estate in Fairfax County, Virginia. There is another complete, original, lower jaw denture dated 1795 at the National Museum of Dentistry, Baltimore, Maryland.[15]

Dentists[edit]

John Greenwood, one of Washington's dentists

At least three of Washington's dentists are identified. His diary mentions "Doctr Watson", the dentist who pulled his first tooth. His personal dentist and friend was Jean-Pierre Le Mayeur.[6] John Greenwood of New York City made and maintained his dentures.[6]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ The Smithsonian Institution states in "The Portrait—George Washington: A National Treasure" that:
    Stuart admired the sculpture of Washington by French artist Jean-Antoine Houdon, probably because it was based on a life mask and therefore extremely accurate. Stuart explained, "When I painted him, he had just had a set of false teeth inserted, which accounts for the constrained expression so noticeable about the mouth and lower part of the face. Houdon's bust does not suffer from this defect. I wanted him as he looked at that time." Stuart preferred the Athenaeum pose and, except for the gaze, used the same pose for the Lansdowne painting.[11]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Sun, Jed Kirschbaum / The Baltimore (27 January 2005). "George Washington's false teeth not wooden". msnbc.com.
  2. ^ "George Washington's Teeth". George Washington's Mount Vernon.
  3. ^ Ferryfarmandkenmore (2017-05-18). "George Washington's Troublesome Teeth". Lives & Legacies. Retrieved 2021-02-06.
  4. ^ Schultz, Colin. "George Washington Didn't Have Wooden Teeth—They Were Ivory". Smithsonian.
  5. ^ a b Pappas, Stephanie; March 3, Live Science Contributor; ET, 2018 08:07am. "What Were George Washington's Teeth Made Of? (It's Not Wood)". Live Science.
  6. ^ a b c d e Andrews, Evan. "Did George Washington have wooden teeth?". HISTORY.
  7. ^ "Did George Washington's false teeth come from his slaves?: A look at the evidence, the responses to that evidence, and the limitations of history". washingtonpapers.org. Retrieved 2020-09-26.
  8. ^ "George Washington and Slave Teeth". George Washington's Mount Vernon. Retrieved 2020-09-26.
  9. ^ "George Washington and Slave Teeth". George Washington's Mount Vernon. Retrieved 2020-09-26.
  10. ^ Mary V. Thompson, "The Private Life of George Washington's Slaves", Frontline, PBS
  11. ^ a b c "The Portrait—George Washington:A National Treasure". Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. Retrieved January 21, 2011. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  12. ^ "FACT CHECK: Did George Washington Have Wooden Teeth?". Snopes.com.
  13. ^ Stuart, Gilbert. "George Washington (the Athenaeum portrait)". National Portrait Gallery. Archived from the original on December 5, 2011. Retrieved December 18, 2011. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  14. ^ Etter, William M. "George Washington's Teeth Myth". www.mountvernon.org. Mount Vernon Ladies' Association. Retrieved 24 March 2019.
  15. ^ ""De-aging" George Washington". Smithsonian Affiliations. Archived from the original on 28 December 2019.

External links[edit]