XXIII: Mythbust Monday — The Presidential Dentures

Growing up, most American kids hear a whole lot of myths and legends about George Washington, America’s first president: he never told a lie, as child he once cut down a cherry tree, and, most famously, he had wooden teeth.

But are they true? Well the old story about Washington cutting down a tree and telling his father “I cannot tell a lie,” when asking if he did it is 100% myth.

But what about the wooden teeth? It is a fact that George Washington had pretty much no teeth left by his mid-adulthood and that he looks stern in pictures because his dentures were extremely painful. But were they actually made of wood?

Sadly, no. They were made of something even weirder.

Due to the poor diet and dental hygiene that were common at the time as well as his own genetics, Washington began experiencing severe pain and tooth loss in his early twenties. Prior to his service in the Revolutionary War, Washington had his first set of dentures made for him by Dr. John Baker. It was a set of partial dentures made of ivory and were wired to his remaining teeth. In the 1780s, he switched dentists to Dr. Jean-Pierre La Mayeur, but it’s unclear whether Dr. La Mayeur actually did anything for Washington.

In 1789, when Washington became president, he had only one of his own teeth remaining in his mouth. He employed Dr. John Greenwood, a pioneer of dentistry and denture-making, to craft him a new set of teeth. Greenwood’s dentures had a lead-coated ivory base with human and animal teeth fastened to it with brass screws and gold wire springs to allow it to open and close with Washington’s jaw.

The only problem with these complete dentures was that they were extremely uncomfortable. The springs were constantly trying to push the dentures open, forcing Washington to constantly clench his jaw to keep his mouth from hanging wide open and the dentures falling out. Washington referred to them as “uneasy in the mouth” and said they made his upper lip bulge. These marked changes in Washington’s appearance are very clear in portraits of him painted by Gilbert Stuart in 1796.

In conclusion, no, George Washington never wore teeth made of wood. He had dentures made of everything from lead and hippopotamus ivory to recycled human teeth, but no matter how realistic or technologically advanced they were, they were never comfortable.

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