Did George Washington Really Have Wooden Teeth?

We've all seen a portrait of George Washington, but have you ever seen one that shows his teeth? Why not? For many people, the answer to that question is "because he had wooden teeth!" But is that actually true? 

The truth is that George Washington had serious dental troubles throughout the majority of his life and went to great lengths to try to deal with his issues. However, the president never attempted to use wooden teeth as a possible remedy for his dental ailments and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!

While wooden teeth might not have been in President Washington’s arsenal of dental apparatuses, he did use quite a variety of different materials. The eighteenth century wasn’t exactly the apex of dental technology and practice. In fact, dentistry as a unique medical practice wasn’t even in existence at that time.  

Any dental procedures would have been implemented, with a fee, by a jack-of-all-trades "doctor," or by someone in the family household with a steady hand and strong stomach.  Usually, the aching tooth in question would be yanked out and a substitute would be fixed in its place.  Because of all of the persistent problems with his teeth, George Washington had many of his teeth pulled in this manner by the time he reached his adult years.

Early practitioners of the dental arts would use quite a variety of materials for false teeth.  Research has shown that George Washington had used materials such as the ivory from hippopotamus, brass, metal screws, and other materials as false teeth in order to try to fix his problems.  

While the rumors of Washington’s wooden teeth are unfounded, the president definitely had dental issues that greatly affected his life. By the time of his inauguration in 1789, Washington only had one of his own teeth left—which was pulled by his dentist in 1796.

Interestingly, the president’s portraits actually give you an idea as to his dental troubles. Due to the limitations of the time, President Washington's dentures did not fit very well, which he often complained about. Look at the portrait of Washington below. See how his mouth is very flat and it looks as if he's holding something in his bottom lip? That's because he is! His poor-fitting dentures took their toll on his appearance over the course of his life, something artists and keen observers noted.

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Image Courtesy of the Library of Congress 

Washington went to great lengths to find a solution for his dental maladies. There have even been discoveries of receipts of the president’s purchase of teeth from other people to use as his own dentures. However, there has yet to be any evidence of Mr. Washington ever having used wood as a material for his false teeth. 

Wood was rarely used as a material for making false teeth, and for good reason. Wood isn’t a suitable material for any type of oral prosthetic. While one might think that wood might be suitable as the malleability would make shaping of the false tooth easy, other characteristics of wood would make it a bad choice for dental work. The nature of the material wouldn’t be able to stand the moist environment of the oral cavity. Saliva would quickly begin to break down the density of the wood, rendering a wooden false tooth basically useless.

Even the President of the United States can have tooth troubles, but luckily, you don't have to suffer as much as George Washington did! Dentistry has come a long way since his time, and so has our understanding of dental care! Make sure you're taking care of your teeth and maintaining regular cleanings with your dentist!

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