Despite the oft-repeated tale that the first US president had dentures whittled from wood, there’s no truth to this particular story. But is true that George Washington had debilitating dental problems and relied on several sets of dentures during his lifetime.
Aged 24, he recorded in his diary that he had paid one ‘Doctr Watson’ the sum of five shillings to remove a tooth. and his dental woes progressed from there. His letters and communiques reveal that it was an ongoing issue, referencing both pain and misery and the attempts to ameliorate them – teeth scrapers, denture files and medications. He only had one of his own teeth remaining at his inauguration in 1789, a lone premolar.
Quite why Washington’s teeth were so bad is unclear – Washington himself, according fellow founding father John Adams, ascribed it to cracking walnuts in his youth. Another theory is that when Washington suffered smallpox in his youth, he was treated with a purging treatment known as calomel, which contained mercury.
Did Washington’s teeth come from slaves?
Washington wore various dentures through his life, and they were a constant source of discomfort and pain. Housed in lead frames, the teeth themselves came from a number of sources. Some were ivory, possibly from an elephant or hippo. Some were filed-down cow and horse teeth. Others may have been metal, possibly of brass or gold. And finally, some of the teeth were human.
Washington kept some of his pulled teeth, and in 1782 asked a cousin to retrieve them from desk drawer and then send them on to him, so they could be used in a new set of dentures. His ledger entry for 8 May 1784 also records that he paid six pounds and two shillings to enslaved people on his plantation for nine teeth, but it’s not known if he was the recipient.
So where does the idea of Washington’s wooden teeth come from? It’s likely that the fake gnashers, particularly those made of ivory, would have become easily discoloured, giving them a brown hue that could have been confused for wood.
Washington’s famed expression of stoicism and composure is thought to have been a result of him clamping his spring-loaded dentures together. Naturally, the jaws of the dentures would be ‘open’, meaning that to keep them shut Washington had to keep his own jaw firmly clenched.
This content was written for BBC History Revealed and first published by HistoryExtra in 2021