Washington’s Teeth Troubles

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In honor of George Washington’s Birthday this month, we’re highlighting his chronic dental problems in this article, including videos featuring Martha Washington taken during Dr. Steve’s recent visit to Mount Vernon. Despite frequent brushing and receiving the finest dental care at the time, he suffered through a lifetime of inflamed gums and abscessed teeth, giving him little reason to smile.

Although George Washington brushed his teeth regularly, by the time he took the oath of office as president at age 57, he was wearing full dentures. Contrary to popular myth, Washington’s false teeth were not made of wood but of human and cow teeth as well as elephant ivory. The dentures required frequent adjusting to function naturally.

In this video, Martha discusses the early years of Washington’s dental problems.

Even with the French and Indian War underway, 23-year-old Washington makes personal dental care a priority. He buys the first of what will be dozens of toothbrushes, tinctures of myrrh, and other tooth powders and pastes. Despite his best efforts to care for his teeth, Washington’s first tooth is extracted at age 24. Almost every year after that Washington suffers from severe toothaches followed by extractions of the painful teeth.

In this video, Martha discusses George’s teeth loss and ill-fitting dentures.

Already a Revolutionary War hero, Washington poses for a portrait painted by Charles Willson Peale in 1776. The portrait reveals a scar on Washington’s left cheek, said to be the result of an abscessed tooth.

Washington’s dentures, contrary to popular belief, were not made of wood. Martha discusses their composition in this video clip.

Now missing several teeth, the 49-year-old Washington wears false teeth wired to his remaining ones. He writes to his dentist William Baker requesting a “pair of pincers to fasten the wire.” Two years later, following his dentist’s instructions, Washington uses wax and Plaster of Paris to construct a model of the inside of his mouth. He sends it to his dentist, who uses it to construct more false teeth for the General.

At his swearing in as first president of the United States in 1789, George Washington has only one tooth remaining. That year he receives the first of four full sets of dentures featuring hippopotamus ivory and human teeth. During his second term as United States president, his last tooth begins to cause him problems, so the 64-ear-old reluctantly allows his dentist to remove it and soon orders a new set of dentures.

The President often referred to his lifelong dental problems as his “private agony.” Martha talks about his private suffering in this video clip.

In December of 1799, at the age of 67, Washington dies. Throughout his life, he spent a small fortune to care for his teeth. He hired the best dentists, suffered through numerous extractions, and owned at least eight sets of dentures.

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