George Washington’s teeth have been the topic of controversy and legend for over two centuries. The popular tale is that his false teeth were made of wood. Not so.
The Father of his Country owned several sets of dentures, but none were made of wood. He suffered from dental problems for his adult life at a time in history when dentistry was, at best, an inexact science. Dental problems in Washington’s era could lead to severe, intractable pain. His accounts left in letters and other writings portray the dental miseries and dentistry of the time.
Washington’s Early Dental Problems
Washington was a strong and athletic leader of great physical and emotional strength, but he undoubtedly suffered great pain as a result of poor dental health. The basics of dental hygiene were known in his day and Washington apparently tried to take care of his teeth, by brushing daily, using mouthwashes, and seeking dental care. Despite his efforts, he suffered frequent infections possibly related to his teeth.
Washington began to lose teeth in his early twenties – extractions continued on a regular basis for the next twenty years. Ironically, the physicians of his day may have been largely responsible for much of his agony and tooth loss, as they used calomel – a mercury compound – to treat various medical problems from which Washington suffered. Unfortunately, mercury weakens and even destroys tooth enamel. On the day of Washington’s first inauguration he had only one natural tooth.
Abscessed and infected gums became an accepted part of Washington’s life contributing to his occasional quick temper and reluctance to smile. The several dentures that Washington owned were typically ill-fitting and uncomfortable. There was no single design, but wood was not used in any of them. One set even contained several human teeth. Various other components of Washington’s dentures included gold and hippopotamus ivory, and springs. The dentures were primarily cosmetic as Washington generally had to eat soft food due to pain caused by the poorly fitting dentures.
Washington Suffered from Disfiguration as Well as Pain
Washington’s face was frequently swollen from infections, one severe enough to result in cause a small hole in his left check that left a permanent scar. Artists of the day portrayed Washington inconsistently depending on the distortion caused by dentures, infection or both.
It is a credit to Washington that he was able to manage the unrelenting pain and effectively lead the Continental Army and the nation as president.
The myth of George Washington’s wooden teeth has endured for two centuries. What is probably the most important story, however, is the considerable discomfort and disfiguration he suffered for most of his life as a result of various dental problems. At any rate, Washington did not have wooden teeth, rather dentures made of human teeth, hippopotamus ivory, gold, and other metals. To his credit, he managed his pain well enough to become our first president.