Peggy Keener: The truth about those teeth – an abiding mystery

Published 5:25 pm Friday, February 23, 2024

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It seems only fitting that after devoting an entire column to Martha Washington—as I did recently—that I should dedicate equal time to George. After all, he was our first president. This, of course, begs the question of what folks are most curious about concerning this most distinguished, most amazing man. I believe if one were to take a poll, there would be one resounding query: George’s teeth!

Poor, poor George lived with a mouth full of anguish. His first tooth was pulled at the tender age of twenty-four. He wrote in his diary that it was removed by a Doctor Watson. This did not stop his pain, however, as he also mentioned his continuing, non-stop tooth agony throughout the years. Even John Adams got into the act commenting that he attributed George’s toothaches to George’s habit of cracking walnuts with his teeth. (Me thinks that would do it alright!) Modern historians, nonetheless, feel that the real culprit was the mercury that had been given to George to treat a previous case of smallpox. (Run that by me again!!!)

On April 30, 1789, the day of his first presidential inauguration, George had only one remaining tooth … a premolar. One has to wonder if he smiled on that occasion. And if the cook served crusty French bread at the inaugural banquet?

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But, do not despair. George was prepared. By then he already had a set of partial dentures. Indeed, four sets to be accurate, that enabled him to smile at his adoring constituents as well as possibly eating that French bread. He still, albeit, had to be cautious to not embed the dentures so far into the crusts that they were unable to un-embed … without, naturally, taking the dentures with them!

I believe it is notable that I mention this pearl of history. George’s last tooth was presented as a gift and keepsake to his last dentist, John Greenwood. Mystery surrounds what happened to it, but I would alert you to watch carefully for it to someday show up on Antiques Roadshow.

The first pair of dentures were crafted in 1783 at Webs Furniture Training in Nottingham, England. (Get out!) They were fashioned from birch plywood as well as from teeth that had been extracted from enslaved people. (What?) But, that’s not all. The teeth also had material from a hippopotamus. (You’re kidding, right? And if this is true, what part???) Of course ivory, brass and gold were, as well, used. The dentures had metal fasteners with springs to force them open, as well as bolts to keep them together. Super comfy chew! Assuredly, this is all true. Records at Mount Vernon show that George bought teeth from slaves. Actually, the poor had been selling their teeth to earn money since the Middle Ages. Rich people would then purchase them for dentures and implants. Remarkably, during the Revolutionary War a French dentist, Jean Pierre Le Moyer, performed tooth transplantations. As early as 1784, Washington had paid several unnamed slaves for nine of their teeth. (This probably worked out well as crunchy French bread was not included in indentured people’s daily diets.) He paid them approximately $154.17 in today’s dollars.

It comes as no surprise that as teeth were falling out all over the beautiful wooden Mount Vernon floors, in no time flat the French dentist became a frequent guest there. (But not nearly as often as the Tooth Fairy!) And one has to wonder if the dentist brought the hippo with him?

The gist of the whole matter was that George needed those teeth because he smiled more consistently than did his slaves. (I suppose picking cotton under the brutish summer sun did dampen the smiles on his servants’ faces. Inasmuch, mouths full of teeth were, I reckon, not all that cosmetically important.)

Delighted with the result, Washington decried, “I confess that I have been staggered in my belief in the efficacy of transplantion.” (George’s word, not mine.)

Having said all of the above, I must concede that nobody really and truly knows for sure if slaves’ teeth were used in George’s mouth. It makes such a juicy story, though, that I had to tell you. That does not mean, however, that hippopotami (plural) were not used.

Washington took the oath of office while wearing a special set of dentures made from ivory, brass and gold that were set in lead and built for him by Dr. John Greenwood. The only existing complete set of his dentures is owned by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association who owns the Washington estate in Fairfax County, Virginia. Additionally, a complete lower jaw denture dating from 1795, is at the National Museum of Dentistry in Baltimore, Maryland.

It distresses me to report that the president’s dentures disfigured his mouth (no surprise there). They also caused no end of torment for which he took laudanum—more commonly known as a “tincture of opium.” Entries made in George’s diary reveal that his dentures throbbingly disfigured his mouth. One comment he made was that his lips “bulged” in an unnatural way, a distortion that is evident in his image on the one-dollar bill. To this I would add, just try putting a hippo in your mouth and see if you, too, don’t get an uncomfortably noticeable bulge.

In one letter to his dentist, Washington asked that he avoid modifying his dentures any more because even the slightest change would force his lips to protrude more than they already did. Poor guy! Imagine living every second with that kind of tribulation.

Washington spent a good deal of his time maintaining his dentures, frequently sending them off to Greenwood for upkeep. There is a mistaken belief that his teeth were made out of wood. The possible explanation of this falsehood is that the ivory teeth easily became stained, making them appear to be wood. In a letter written in 1798, Greenwood advised that George should more thoroughly clean the teeth as the last set George had sent him was very black. (Nice!) Also his dentist added that port wine took off all the polish. (Dang!)

There is no report anywhere of George ever misplacing his dentures. Like did he ever sit on them? And if he did, did it inspire the following:

There once was a man from Blackheath

Who sat on his pair of false teeth.

Said he with a start,

“Oh, dear bless my heart,

“I’ve bitten myself underneath!”

In a grand gesture of gratitude, Washington presented his last tooth as a gift and keepsake to his faithful dentist, John Greenwood. Try as I might, though, I have pushed this story around and around in my brain trying to decide if this was a wonderful bequest … or was it simply ishy?

Finally, and not least of all, as I close out this report—a true historical account of an illustrious statesman and military leader—there still lingers yet one more weighty unanswered question. Whatever happened to that chopped down cherry tree? And furthermore, did it happen during a monumental fit of anger when young George found out he could no longer bite walnut shells with only one tooth?