Fact & fiction about George Washington’s teeth – and why they were so controversial

George Washington - false teeth-dentures

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Two big presi-dental questions that have emerged over the years: Did George Washington have wooden dentures? The answer to that one is no.

Question two: Did George Washington’s false teeth include actual human teeth that came from slaves? That answer may be yes — but probably not quite the way many people think. (Details are below.)

These old newspaper stories about the first President’s dental woes and his various sets of false teeth from 1954, 1940 and 1914 are presented here in reverse chronological order, along with a clipping from way back in 1784.

Taken together, the clippings and pictures clearly illustrate how much discomfort — physical and mental — George Washington endured for most of his adult life.

Suffice it to say that the field of dentistry has fortunately come a long way since the days of heavy spring-loaded dentures filled with other peoples’ teeth and pieces of animal tusk.

George Washington portrait with puffed face from dentures/false teeth

A George Washington relic: A monstrous set of false teeth (1954)

There is one small item belonging to the University of Maryland that has more high-salaried custodians than most other university property combined. This item is a set of George Washington’s false teeth.

So much stress is placed upon the denture’s safety that Dr Myron S. Aisenberg, to whose personal care they are entrusted, cannot remove them from the Dental School on Greene street without permission of the board of regents. and the approval of the president of the university

The teeth were made for the first President by Dr John Greenwood, of New York, a pioneer in dentistry, and evidently a man of a rare wit and keen insight into Washington’s after-dinner habits.

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A letter to Washington

All three of those traits are brought out in a letter to Washington regarding a set of teeth which had been sent the dentist for repair. He wrote in part:

I send you inclosed two setts of teeth, one fixed on the Old Barrs in part and the sett you sent me from Philadelphia which when I Received was very black Ocationed either by your soaking them in port wine, or by your drinking it. Port wine being sower takes of[f] all the polish and All Acids has a tendency to soften every kind of teeth and bone. Acid is Used in Couloring every kind of Ivory. therefore it is very perncious to the teeth. I Advice you to Either take them out After dinner and put them in cleain water and put in another scett or Cleain them with a brush and som Chalk scraped fine.

Letter to George Washington from Dr. John Greenwood

Dr Aisenberg, who is clean of the University of Maryland Dental School, admits that the plates are monstrosities by modern standards. but calls them the “very best” of the Eighteenth Century.

The Washington teeth are hand-carved from ivory, and are mounted on solid gold plates by means of dowels and rivets. The upper and lower plates are joined by a heavy coil spring, evidently designed to keep the uppers up and the lowers down.

George Washington’s dentures made it hard to smile

History discloses that Washington’s teeth, or lack of teeth, caused him much pain and trouble, but no more than was experienced by the many artists who painted his portrait.

Several of the portraits apparently were done after the General lost his teeth, this accounting for the peculiar set of his lips.

Charles Willson Peale, of the famous Maryland family, had the best solution to this difficulty, according to Dr Aisenberg. Besides being an artist, Peale was a practicing dentist, and painted Washington while the subject wore a set of front teeth made especially for the sitting.

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For Gilbert Stuart’s portrait, which shows a pronounced puffiness about the lips, Washington’s mouth is said to have been stuffed with cotton to fill out the contour of the lower face.

“Most statesmen of that era had to have that cotton in their mouths when their portraits were painted,” says Dr Aisenberg. And the reason is simple: “Most of them didn’t have any teeth.”

Both Charles Willson Peale and his son, Rembrandt, practiced dentistry, and the former is credited with doing much of the early work in shading and baking porcelain to match natural discolorations in teeth.

Washington is believed to have had two complete sets of false teeth, and one partial plate.

The set owned by the university is the first complete one. The second set, also made by Dr Greenwood, is buried with Washington at Mount Vernon.

According to Dr Aisenberg, the set at the university was made in 1797 — and, the dean adds, Washington sent them back that very same year for repair. And he must have sent them back twice, for Greenwood’s letter, the one quoted above, was dated December 28. 1798.

When Dr John Greenwood died, the dentures went to his son, Dr John Isaac Greenwood, also a New York dentist. The younger Greenwood in 1854 gave the teeth to Dr Chapin A. Harris, first dean of the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery, forerunner of the present school and the first dental school in the world.

President George Washington’s teeth are an invaluable part of history

There is no record of what the teeth cost Washington, but upon returning them after one repair job. Dr Greenwood enclosed a bill for $15, a high figure in those days.

The dentures are “absolutely invaluable as an antiquity,” according to Dr Aisenberg.

As far as the dean knows. they have left the Dental Museum only three times; they were exhibited at the Philadelphia Sesquicentennial in 1926, at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933, and at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington for a short time.

The teeth, which have long attracted the curiosity of laymen and professional men, are on permanent display in the Dental School’s museum, and the public can see them there during business hours.

ALSO SEE: President George Washington’s Farewell Address (1796)

George Washington's false teeth in 1954

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President George Washington’s dentures: Poor Ol’ George! (1940)

From the Cincinnati Enquirer (Ohio) – November 27, 1940

Washington’s teeth among the worst of his time, is conclusion of dentist

George Washington, for the sake of posterity, once jammed a two-pound set of false teeth into his mouth, Dr Bernhard W Weinberger, New York dentist and noted dental historian, recalled yesterday.

Dr Weinberger, who is attending the golden jubilee meeting of the Ohio State Dental Society, pointed cut in an interview at the Hotel Netherland Plaza that the first President was plagued all his life by bad teeth.

It was when the first President was sitting for one of the innumerable portraits done for him by Charles Wilson Peale that the artist persuaded him to put the special set in his mouth — presumably to fill out his shrunken face.

Another eminent artist of the day knew about Washington’s teeth, for when Gilbert Stuart fled his creditors in Ireland and returned to America to recoup his fortunes by painting General Washington (whom he disliked cordially), he was aghast to find, not the face he had seen on canvas, but one misshapen by badly-fitting teeth.

The statistics on dental bills, new sets of teeth, dentists, and ailments traceable to had teeth which fell to the lot of the “Father of His Country” is staggering.

There was nothing unusual about Washington’s teeth — most people in those days had bad teeth, induced, in the opinion or Dr Weinberger, by heavy drugs taken to prevent or cure malaria.

Dentally, Washington does possess one distinction: He possesses the first gold plate known to dental history.

But generally, his false teeth (there were six sets of them) were made of carved ivory and supported in his mouth by springs. Sometimes the dentist plugged Washington’s own teeth into the plates. Occasionally they were solid ivory.

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Washington, who himself was constantly plagued by creditors and preyed upon for loans by his friends, is known to have paid dentists $1,000 up to 1782. Records for the remaining 17 years of his life are not available.

However, Dr Weinberger believes he can trace every illness of Washington to his teeth — save, possibly, his final one, in which he may have died from over-bleeding.

And it wasn’t that he didn’t take care of his teeth. He believed in picking then carefully at the table (behind a napkin, of course), and in that respect, he followed the very latest fashion.

He was constantly buying toothbrushes, as shown by his ledger, and constantly looking for a new dentist (of which he had at least 10).

He wrote a young friend of his in New York concerning a young French dentist who had lately arrived: “Having some teeth which are very troublesome at times and of which I wish to be eased, please make an investigation or the man,” whose name was Jean Le Mayeur.

In short, Washington was God’s gift to dentistry, circa A. D. 1780.

George Washington's false teeth in statue

An unfamiliar Washington (1914)

As published in the Altoona [Pennsylvania] Tribune (February 23, 1914)

The Father of Our Country was subject to the ills and infirmities with which many of us mortals have to contend. He had poor teeth, and a portrait bust in the chancel end of Christ (Old North) church in Boston shows him without any teeth.

This bust is one of the most peculiar representations of Washington, and the first piece of memorial sculpture ever executed of him.

The carving is curious in that it shows him as an old man, with little of the grandeur of face and dignity of expression that most of his better-known portraits suggest.

If one’s flippancy and imagination can carry him that far and will allow a white lace cap to be tied under the chin of the sculptured face and a pair of spectacles put over the eyes, the portrait would suggest some good-natured grandmother.

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Washington’s dentist was John Greenwood of New York. Soon after the inauguration in that city in 1789, Greenwood furnished the president’s mouth with a complete set of artificial teeth.

The upper half of this marvelous creation was entirely fashioned from a piece of seahorse or hippopotamus tusk, while the lower half was cut from the same material, into which human teeth were inserted and fastened with gold stays.

Some idea of the cost of the job may be had when it is understood that an early practitioner in Philadelphia, Dr Le Mayeur, advertised in 1784 that 2 guineas would be paid for every tooth that any person might be disposed to sell him. This same dentist, by the way, further advertised that be had “transplanted 123 teeth in the previous six months,” and all without pain to his clients!

Despite the doctor’s alluring advertisements, one of his feminine customers in Philadelphia is said to have worn her Le Mayeur grafts for two months before she was able to eat with them.

Dentist looking to purchase teeth

As published in the Pennsylvania Packet (December 16, 1784)

Doctor Le Mayeur, Dentist… Any person disposed to tell their Front Teeth, or any of them, may call on Dr Le Mayeur, at his lodgings, and receive Two Guineas for each Tooth.

Dr Le Mayeur, advertising for teeth in 1784

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