It is no secret that the father of our country was cursed throughout his life with major dental problems. Most people however are not aware just how bad George Washington’s teeth were.
To put it in perspective, Washington lost about 1 adult tooth per year from the age of 24 on. By the time he was inaugurated as president in 1789, he had but one tooth left in his mouth, a lower left bicuspid. Surprisingly, these issues were not due to poor hygiene as Washington made great efforts to combat tooth decay by using cleansers, scalers and powders. None of these treatments worked.
Over the years, Washington wore several sets of false teeth made from everything but wood including elephant and hippopotamus ivory, walrus tusk, and even the teeth of a fellow human. These hand crafted dentures were considered to be state-of-the art at the time, but woefully primitive in retrospect. According to Barbara Glover, author of George Washington - A Dental Victim, “Washington often returned dentures for adjustments and repairs, at one time complaining that ‘they were forcing his lips out.’” She added that, “It is not difficult to imagine that George Washington's dental problems might have had some influence on history. Dental discomfort is said to have caused him to forgo giving his second inaugural address.”
Ron Chernow, author of Washington: A Life states, “If Washington was self conscious about smiling in later years, it may have also been because his dentures grew discolored…In December 1798, the dentist noted that they had turned ‘very black,’ either because Washington had soaked them in port wine or because he drank too much of it…For someone who took inordinate pride in his appearance, the highly visible dentures must have been mortifying, especially since public speaking and socializing were constant, obligatory duties for a president.”
This unfortunate and embarrassing aspect of Washington’s life was common knowledge at the time and has never been shied away from when examining his legacy. In the museum at Mount Vernon, there is a display case holding a set of the president’s dentures (pictured above). The signage above it presents the following:
At home all day-not well. Still indisposed with an aching tooth and swelled and inflamed gum. - George Washington
Although he was a man of exceptional physical stature and stamina, George Washington suffered from chronically bad teeth. Despite frequent brushing and availing himself of the finest dental care, he suffered through a lifetime of inflamed gums and abscessed teeth. His torturous, oversized dentures left his mouth puffy, raw, and swollen-giving him little reason to smile.