11-18Gilbert_Stuart_Portrait_of_George_Washington

George Washington’s Dental Problems

George Washington never owned a set of wooden teeth, but he did own many sets of dentures.

The letters, journals, and accounts left by our First President document his life-long dental problems and the
level of dental care available in the mid and late 18th century.

 

Washington had a long history of illness. In 1751 he wrote of having smallpox. As a young lieutenant colonel in 1755 serving in the French and Indian War, he suffered pain in the head; and dysentery. In
1761 when he was twenty-nine and back at Mt. Vernon, he got dengue fever. Over the ensuing years
there were attacks of malaria, flu, and rheumatic complaints. Adding to the stress as commander of the
Continental Army were constant unrelieved toothaches.
According to his accounts, he received the standard medical treatments of the day, which included
heavy doses of mercuric chloride that can lead to destruction of the teeth. This, combined with what
may have been naturally poor teeth, led to dental problems beginning when Washington was twenty-
two. Over the next thirty-five years, he would lose all his teeth despite daily brushing, use of dentifrice
and mouthwash. Washington’s toilet set, containing a silver toothbrush and tongue scraper with a silver
tooth powder case, can be seen at Mt. Vernon.
Toothaches followed by extraction would be a yearly occurrence for Washington. There were frequent
episodes of infected and abscessed teeth, inflamed gums, and finally ill-fitting dentures. One can
imagine that his reputed hair-trigger temper might have been the result of a constant battle with pain.
He was continually corresponding with noted dentists of the day asking for a file to repair a denture, a
scraper to clean his teeth or pincers to fasten wires on his teeth. He inquired about a dentist of ;whose
skill much has been said;. He requested material to make a model of his teeth so a dentist could make
new dentures.
When George Washington was inaugurated for his first term as President in 1789, he had only one
natural tooth remaining and was wearing his first full set of dentures made by John Greenwood.
Previously he had had partial dentures which were held in place by hooking them around the remaining
teeth. The Greenwood dentures had a base of hippopotamus ivory carved to fit the gums. The upper
denture had ivory teeth and the lower plate consisted of eight human teeth fastened by gold pivots that
screwed into the base. The set was secured in his mouth by spiral springs.
Washington’s next set of dentures was made in 1791 and a third in 1795, for which he paid sixty dollars.
James Gardette made a large and very clumsy set for him in 1796. Apparently Washington was not
pleased with these dentures and may have ordered another set from Greenwood in 1797. Washington
often returned dentures for adjustments and repairs, at one time complaining that they were forcing
his lips out. His final set was made in 1798, the year before he died. This set has a gold plate with
individual backing for each tooth that is fastened by rivets. The lower denture of this set, along with
others, are on display in the Dr. Samuel D. Harris National Museum of Dentistry in Baltimore.
Written descriptions of Washington’s physical appearance note facial and vocal changes over the years.
Portraits by leading painters of the day also record facial changes. Some of the alterations in his
appearance may have been due to his dentures. For example, the springs, securing his dentures could
have pushed his teeth forward, causing the cheeks to look puffy.

In Charles Wilson Peale's first portrait of Washington in 1757, the mouth is noted to be quite small.
Washington was twenty-five at that time and certainly still had some of his natural teeth. The painting
done in 1776 by the same artist shows a scar on the left cheek from a fistula caused by an abscessed
tooth. Here the face is long and oval. There is a story that Peale made a set of dentures for Washington
when he was sitting for one of his portraits, because Peale felt that the set he was wearing was causing
him too much discomfort and facial disfigurement.
Rembrandt Peale’s portrait in 1795 is thought to be a realistic one and the mouth is seen as puffy and
swollen. Gilbert Stuart reportedly packed cotton inside Washington’s mouth to support the lips in his
1797 painting.
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 forego giving his second inaugural address.
Eating, smiling, and talking all must have given him great discomfort. In later life he could only eat soft
foods.
George Washington, the American revolutionary leader and first president of the United States passed
away at his home in Mt. Vernon, between ten and eleven p.m. December 14th, 1799 at 68 years old. He
died from upper airway obstruction caused by a throat infection, possibly related to his chronic dental
problems. The story of Washington’s long and painful struggle with dental health adds another
dimension to this American hero’s life as well as to the history of dentistry.
http://www.ci.riverdale-park.md.us/History/riversdaleletter/fall1998.html
https://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/the-death-of-george-