George Washington, America’s founding father, and first president governed from 1789 to 1797 and won many battles as a military general as well as in the political arena as a leader and statesman.
While he led Patriot armies to success in the country’s Struggle for Independence, he failed to win the war against tooth pain.
While dentistry has progressed and a wide range of products and treatments are available today, few remedies worked for Washington in the 18th century.
Washington’s fake teeth were rumored to be made of wood for many years. The truth is that no wood could have survived in a mouth, especially because the liquids and solids would have made it damp and weak, causing rotting and immense suffering for the bearer.
Washington began his military career in the Virginia Militia, fighting alongside the British during the French and Indian War, where he paid five shillings to a “Doctor Watson” for the removal of a tooth. Despite buying dozens of toothbrushes, teeth powders and pastes, and myrrh tinctures during the battle, Washington received little relief because his tooth troubles had already manifested.
While in Newburgh, New York on Christmas Day, 1782, Washington wrote to his cousin, Lund Washington, who served as the temporary keeper of the Mount Vernon estate during the American Revolution, asking him to peek inside a drawer of his desk at Mount Vernon where he had placed two tiny front teeth.
While it is impossible to say for certain who those teeth belonged to, given that Washington held slaves and that Virginia law would not have penalized him if he had caused his slaves’ teeth to be pulled for his dentures rather than pay large sums, it is most likely the source of his dentures.
Washington held 317 slaves at Mount Vernon when he died on December 14, 1799, at the age of 67. The source of some of Washington’s denture teeth may be revealed by a simple notation in the Mount Vernon plantation ledger books for 1784. “By cash pd Negroes for 9 Teeth on Acct of Dr. Lemoin,” the note simply states. Dr. Lemoin was the same Dr. Jean Le Mayeur who communicated with George Washington during his summer stay to Mount Vernon.
“Persons who are willing to dispose of their Front Teeth,” Dr. Le Mayeur advertised in newspapers wherever he practiced. He advertised in New York that he would pay two guineas each for good front teeth, and in Richmond that “slaves exempted.” That could explain why Lund Washington reported such a cheap price. Nine teeth sold for two guineas apiece would be worth about nineteen pounds; Washington only paid a little more than six pounds for them.
According to legend, Washington only had one natural tooth left when he took the oath of office as president of the United States on April 30, 1789.
In the same year, Dr. John Greenwood, a prominent New York City dentist, created a denture for Washington from carved hippopotamus ivory, human teeth, and brass nails. Dr. Greenwood drilled a hole in the denture to fit tightly over his remaining tooth, his bottom left first premolar, and provide some retention. Dr. Greenwood eventually had to extract this tooth, which he then placed in a locket tied to a pocket watch and chain. Both the locket and the denture are now on display at the New York Academy of Medicine in Manhattan.
Even during his second inaugural address, on March 4, 1793, in the Senate chamber of Congress Hall in Philadelphia, Washington, who was afflicted with dentures, delivered the shortest inaugural address in history, lasting only two minutes and including only 135 words.
The strange thing about Washington is that as a slaveholder, he condoned and even encouraged violence as a means of keeping enslaved people in servitude, buying and selling slaves for economic reasons, sometimes separating families in the process, and as president, he prevented his enslaved servants from learning of their own natural right to freedom, but at the end of his life, against his family’s protests, he made the controversial decision to free his legal portion of Mount Vernon.