The Richmond History Podcast

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Founding Teeth

By April 30, 1789, at age 57, when George Washington was sworn in as President on the balcony of Federal Hall on Wall St. in New York City, he only had 1 tooth.   When the nations capital was moved to Philadelphia, Washington left his dentist John Greenwood  in New York.  This distance of almost one hundred mile between doctor and patient turned out to be a pain in the neck... or...uh... jaw.   Washington wasn't alone in a lack of chewing instruments, tooth lose was common in his day.  Even Martha had a set of dentures as early as George's second term.
That makes my teeth feel fuzzy.

The dentures Greenwood made during GW's first term had natural teeth in a frame work of hippopotamus ivory that fit around his one lower bicuspid.  It was not uncommon for the poor to sell their teeth, to take them from slave's or to take them from corpses.  Historian Ron Chernow said there was no real evidence where GW's teeth came from, but they were definitely not wood.  The wooden myth story seems to come from stains in the cracks in the ivory that gave them a wooded appearance.  Greenwood said, the dentures "turned very black either because Washington had soaked them in port wine or because he drank too much of it". These primitive dentures forced him to only eat soft food, and chew it in the front of his mouth.

Washington was very selfconscious about his dentures.  The President said his several pairs of teeth made his lips bulge out so his lips looked swollen, making his very selfconscious so he would file then down, loosening the teeth.  He plead with Greenwood to refrain from adding anything that would increase the swollen look.  Discretion in letters was always important to Washington, especially when it came to the presidential chompers, but the problems got so bad he to wrote to Greenwood "I am willing and ready to pay whatever you may charge me".

Eventually, frustrated with the distance between him and his dentist he asked for 1 foot of gold wire & 2 feet of spiral spring so he could attempt some amateur self-dentistry.

The bulge in his Bottom lip can be seen in portraits.

Washington's last tooth was pulled in 1796.  He let Greenwood keep it as a valuable souvenir that he kept in a glass locket. The loss of his last tooth that anchored the dentures in his mouth only caused more discomfort and made it more difficult to keep the prosthetic teeth in the Virginian's mouth.

So in short kids... we do want to be more like The Father of Our Country in a lot of ways but not in every way.  Brush your teeth.  After thinking about it I am going to brush mine right now.

1. Information taken from Washington : A Life, Ron Chernow


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