George Washington’s persistent and significant dental discomfort
George Washington didn’t use wooden teeth, but with the chronic dental problems that chased him throughout his life, he may have been willing to give some a try. While most stories get caught up on whether or not our first president was chewing with hardwood, worrying about the materials involved overlooks what a huge problem Washington’s teeth, and eventual lack thereof, were in his life. While he tried his best to keep his dental health concerns private, the persistent discomfort appears to have spilled over into his public activities more than once.
Uncertain cures for many maladies
Washington experienced problems with his teeth in his early twenties, paying for his first tooth-extraction by age 24. He often complained about pain, inflammation, and generally feeling miserable in the mouth, in addition to suffering from variety of illnesses from age 17 on. This can’t be attributed to something as simple as a sweet-tooth and poor hygiene, as Washington was known to employ a variety of dental tools, including brushes, scrapers and various washes and tooth-powders. In fact, some of these cures may have exacerbated things, as the roots, pumice and burnt bread used in these proto-toothpastes were very abrasive, and may have stripped the very enamel they were supposed to protect. Beyond those topical treatments, mercury-chloride (Hg2Cl2) was often prescribed under the name calomel for a variety of ailments. With frequent doses, mercury poisoning can often cause tooth degeneration, and so the very things meant to help may have been a source of harm.
While Washington did his best to keep these problems from dominating his life, anyone with even a small cavity knows that persistent pain is hard to ignore. During the Revolutionary War, the British intercepted personal correspondence from the future president to his dentist, asking about a mouth bridge he had ordered. The British started mocking Washington for his poor health, which combined with other insults to the Franco-American alliance, prompted the French dentist Dr. Jean-Pierre Le Mayeur to quit his service to the British commander, Sir Henry Clinton, and ‘defect’ to become Washington’s dentist instead.
Militarily, the letter also unintentionally acted as a piece of counter-intelligence for the Americans. Washington indicated that he wouldn’t be able to come to Philadelphia any time soon for care, which convinced Clinton that the American and French forces were planning on staying near New York City, rather than marching south. Thanks to a lack of immediate reinforcements, the British forces at Yorktown left open for defeat on October 19, 1781.
Outside of wartime dentistry, Washington’s teeth likely had an impact on his presidency as well. He was down to his last natural tooth when he was inaugurated in 1789, and even that one was doomed to be extracted by 1796 (by a one Dr. John Greenwood, who kept the tooth on his watch chain). While dentures weren’t made from wood in the late eighteenth century, they weren’t exactly natural looking, even when made from the user’s extracted teeth. Many dentures were made from carved hippopotamus ivory, other people’s teeth, lead, and wire. While they were often designed to be wired to a patient’s remaining teeth, Washington was forced to struggle with bulky, ill-fitting appliances. He was self-conscious of how they reshaped his face, puffing out his upper lip and cheeks. They also stained easily, all of which made the president hesitant to open his mouth to speak. Dental discomfort may have even been the reason he skipped delivering a second inaugural address.
Aside from a slice of medical history, Washington’s teeth show how details can count, and influence us in seemingly small but significant ways. It reminds us of how a famously large man was dogged by illness and suffering. And maybe it serves as reminder of how lucky we are to have mint on our toothbrushes instead of pumice or mercury.
Source: The Trouble with Teeth by Mount Vernon Ladies' Association., George Washington's Mount Vernon