Monday, February 20, 2017

Happy President's Day: George Washington's Teeth

Contrary to what you heard in grammar school, George Washington did not have wooden teeth. He did have dentures made out of a variety of materials including lead, gold, and brass, with teeth carved from ivory, hippo, and cow teeth. There were also some human teeth set into his dentures - other's and possibly some of his own. Some think that staining from red wine and foods in the tiny fractures of the fake teeth may have resulted in the wooden look of Washington's teeth. This rumor may also have come from the fact that his last dentist was a Dr. Greenwood. Washington gave Greenwood his very last real tooth, the only one he still had when he became president, as a gift when it, too, failed. Dr. Greenwood then wore this tooth displayed in a small glass case in a chain around his neck.

Sketch of Washington's dentures & dollar bill, ym
So what caused Washington’s devastating tooth loss?  Historical documents suggest he was particular about caring for his teeth to the point of obsession, and owned toothbrushes, tooth powders, tongue scrapers and other implements to clean his mouth. Still, he started losing his teeth in his twenties. By his own account, his tooth loss was caused by a bad habit of his youth - cracking walnuts with his teeth! The scar on his cheek is from an abscess that required draining, and in portraits of the president when he was older, there are obvious signs that the loss of his teeth had changed the look of his face.

Washington often complained that his dentures hurt and were ill-fitting and he was constantly in contact with dentists. A letter to his dentist that was intercepted by the British may have even changed the course of a battle. Because Washington directed his dentist to send him dental materials in New York, the British decided to not send troop reinforcements South.

Some historians speculate that Washington had a genetic disorder that affected his teeth.  He was tall compared to his family members and other men of that time. He also had other physical signs that indicate the possibility of a genetic defect. (Washington had no biological children of his own and was thought to be infertile - the children that he and Martha raised were from her previous marriage.) 

Washington suffered from many illnesses throughout his life including small pox, malaria and tuberculosis. He may even have suffered from metal poisoning from the medications he took or from materials, like lead, that made up his dentures. Indeed, the bloodletting that was used to treat his very last illness, epiglottitis (swelling of the cartilage that covers the windpipe when swallowing,) is suspected to be what actually caused his death at the age of 68 in December of 1799.

For more information about Washington, his teeth, and other fascinating facts about his life visit:,, and

This blog is for entertainment purposes only and not intended to treat or diagnose any medical or dental condition. Please see your dentist or doctor if you are having health problems. 

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