GEORGE WASHINGTON'S TEETH
George Washington was the first President of the United States (1789–1797), the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, and one of the Founding Fathers of the United States.
He presided over the convention that drafted the Constitution, which replaced the Articles of Confederation and established the position of President.
[He is the one on the left.]
He was also famous for his false teeth, which were unique in their time, and were made of elephant ivory and walrus tusks.
Throughout his adult years George Washington suffered from poor dental health; from his early twenties he experienced regular toothaches, decay, and tooth loss.
These problems were probably due to factors common during Washington's era, including a poorly balanced diet and disease, as well as genetics.
He spent his life in frequent pain and employed a variety of tooth cleaners, dental medicines, and dentures.
Contrary to later legend, none of Washington's false teeth were made of wood.
Prior to Washington's service in the Revolutionary War, Dr. John Baker, the first dentist to fashion false teeth for Washington, fabricated a partial denture with ivory that was wired to Washington's remaining real teeth.
In the 1780s, Washington employed the services of Jean-Pierre Le Mayeur, a French dentist living in America, but it is unclear precisely what dental services Le Mayeur performed, although he made claims for transplanted teeth.
Washington was at first sceptical, but when he found that Le Mayeur had actually performed a successful transplant, it made a convert of him.
According to Mary Thompson, Washington bought nine teeth in 1784 from certain nameless "Negroes," probably some of his own slaves, afor thirteen shillings apiece.
Whether he wanted the teeth implanted directly in his mouth, or incorporated into dentures, we cannot say.
However ghoulish this trade sounds to modern readers, it was then standard practice for rich people to purchase teeth from the poor.
[Washington with some of his slaves]
In his advertisements, Dr. Le Mayeur offered to buy teeth from willing vendors and bid "three guineas for good front teeth from anyone but slaves."
This suggests a stigma among white people about having slaves' teeth.
Either way, we can deduce that Washington's dental transplant miscarried, since by the time of his presidential inauguration in 1789, he had only a single working tooth remaining.
Le Mayeur probably fashioned a partial set of false teeth for Washington; the Frenchman also advertised that he was experienced at "transplanting...put[ting] natural teeth instead of false."
Le Mayeur and Washington quickly became friends, and Le Mayeur was a guest at Mount Vernon on multiple occasions in the mid-1780s.
When Washington was inaugurated President in 1789, only one real tooth remained in his mouth.
It was then that Dr. John Greenwood—a New York dentist, former soldier in the Revolution, and a true pioneer in American dentistry—fashioned a technologically advanced set of dentures carved out of hippopotamus ivory and employing gold wire springs and brass screws holding human teeth.(see below.)
Greenwood even left a hole in the dentures to accommodate Washington's single tooth as he believed a dentist should "never extract a tooth...[when] there is a possibility of saving it."
When Washington finally lost this tooth as well, he gave it to Greenwood, who saved this cherished item in a special case.
All of Washington's dentures caused him pain and produced facial disfigurement, described by George Washington Parke Custis as "a marked change...in the appearance...more especially in the projection of the under lip."
This physical change can be seen in the well-known portrait painted by Gilbert Stuart in 1796.
Washington complained that even the expertly constructed dentures made by Greenwood "are both uneasy in the mouth and bulge my lips out" and that the teeth "have, by degrees, worked loose."
Not surprisingly, Washington found his ivory and metal contraptions difficult to use while eating or speaking.
The ivory dentures also tended to stain easily, requiring extensive maintenance such as cleaning with wax and "some chalk and a Pine or Ceder stick" and "soake[ing]...in Broath."
One of Washington's ivory sets of dentures.
Today, a few of Washington's false teeth still exist.
Part of a denture made by Greenwood is owned by the New York Academy of Medicine as is the decorative case holding Washington’s last tooth.
The only complete set of Washington's dentures that still survives is preserved by the Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens and is made of animal and human teeth, lead, and ivory.