FFF (Facts, Fallacies and Facetiousness) Friday – George Washington’s Teeth

I think this post will cover all the “F’s” for this Friday!  We’ve all heard the stories of George Washington .. he chopped down a cherry tree, he couldn’t tell a lie, he threw a silver dollar across the Potomac (I have to admit, I’d never heard that one) and he had wooden teeth.

Today, let’s talk teeth.  According to the Mount Vernon web site, George Washington never had wooden teeth.  He did have dentures, but they were not wooden (bone, hippopotamus ivory, human teeth, brass screws, lead, and gold metal wire — but not wood).   Some have suggested that perhaps people assumed his dentures were wooden because they had become stained and took on the appearance of wood.

Actually, Washington was plagued with dental problems most of his life.  From the Mount Vernon web site, here is a picture of the only remaining full set in existence (lovely, aren’t they?):

GW teeth

By reading the Mount Vernon web site page “Ten Facts About Washington’s Teeth” (http://www.mountvernon.org/georgewashington/teeth), I found quite a bit of information I didn’t know.

Apparently George Washington wanted to keep his dental issue a secret.  In 1781 he was mortified to learn that the British had somehow intercepted a personal letter he wrote requesting some dental paraphernalia.  His dentist lived in Philadelphia and the letter stated that he wouldn’t likely be in Philadelphia any time soon, so he wanted the tools sent to New York instead.

Sir Henry Clinton saw the letter and was convinced that the other letter in the packet (military correspondence) must be genuine.   Because of Washington’s statement in the personal letter of not being in Philadelphia anytime soon, Clinton assumed that the forces encamped around New York would not be advancing south to threaten Lord Cornwallis near Yorktown.

However, Clinton did not know that the troop movement south was already planned.  Since Clinton did not see a need to help Cornwallis, the British were utterly defeated at Yorktown on October 19, 1781.

Some other interesting facts about George Washington’s teeth:

  • He bought teeth from African Americans.  One of Washington’s account books noted an entry detailing Washington’s purchase of 9 teeth from “Negroes” for 122 shillings.  It’s not certain if he intended to use these teeth for dentures or as implants.  According to the Mount Vernon web site this was a fairly common occurrence for affluent individuals in the 18th century.
  • By the time he was inaugurated, he had only one working tooth remaining (1789).   When he had the tooth pulled in 1796, he allowed his dentist to keep it as a keepsake, which the dentist displayed on a watch chain, encased in a small glass display.
  • His dental problems changed the shape of his face.  In a letter to his dentist in 1798, Washington complained to his dentist that the dentures had “the effect of forcing the lip out just under the nose.”
  • Not surprising, his dental issues made his ability (and willingness) to speak more difficult.  He was always self-conscious about the dentures, experiencing great challenges with his ability to speak.

I decided to a little more research on 18th century dentistry.  Pierre Fauchard (French) is known as the father of modern dentistry.  He was responsible for developing the practice of dental fillings and also the first to pinpoint sugar derivative acids as the cause of cavities.

Dentistry in America began when the Massachusetts Bay Colony settlers brought their own barber-surgeons.  One of the first dentists to set up a practice in America was John Baker, immigrating from England in the 1760s.  Here’s a surprising fact I had never heard of … Paul Revere was an amateur dentist.  Revere was, by trade, a silversmith.  With his skills as a silver craftsman he fashioned a method to wire dentures made of walrus ivory (or animal teeth) into his patients’ mouths.

In 1776, Revere became the first person to practice forensic dentistry to identify a friend, Joseph Warren (who had died at the Battle of Bunker Hill), nine months after Warren’s death, recognizing the wiring he had used to secure a false tooth.  And, related to the myths about George Washington’s teeth, Paul Revere never fashioned a set of dentures, wooden or otherwise, for Washington.  So full circle, we come back to the original subject of the myths surrounding George Washington’s teeth and a little known fact about another American patriot, Paul Revere.

Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!

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© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2013.

 

2 Comments

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