Monday, February 16, 2015

Unusual Artifacts: George Washington’s Teeth

George Washington's Lower Dentures
The National Museum of Dentistry, Baltimore
The first United States president was plagued by dental problems. By the time he was twenty-two, he had already lost his first adult tooth. Washington’s early tooth-lose owes much to the lack of antibiotics. During his early life, he was troubled by many common illnesses of the time—the treatments for which tended to deteriorate the integrity of a person’s teeth. When he was elected president, Washington only had one tooth in his head.

Washington wore dentures and had several sets made through the years. His favorite dentist was John Greenwood. However, contrary to popular belief, none of his dentures were made of wood. George’s teeth were constructs of gold, ivory, human bone, animal bones and teeth and teeth extracted from cadavers. I think, perhaps, wood might have been more pleasant.

The first president always had problems with his dentures. They broke frequently and he’d have to send them through the mail to Greenwood for repair. Ultimately, he began repairing them himself, having requested the proper tools to do so. He didn’t do a very good job of it. His short speeches and famous brevity were due more to oral pain than succinctness.

The National Museum of Dentistry in Baltimore—an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institute—houses several sets of Washington’s teeth and explains how the differences in his dentures changed the look of his face. We can see these changes throughout the various portraits painted of Washington. In some, he even stuffed his mouth with cotton during the sittings so that he would appear healthier.

So, no, his teeth weren’t wooden, but the fact that so many sets of the first president’s teeth remain, is, by itself, quite unusual.

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