Did He Or Didn’t He? That is, Did George Washington Have Wooden Teeth Or Didn’t He?

By Don Vitale

Of all the stories of our First President, especially those known as myths and fables, the one that says George Washington wore false teeth that were made of wood is at the top of the list. (Incidentally, from here on I’ll refer to George Washington as GW)

We can easily spend a good hour or so kicking this one around…and still not figure out where and how hearsay became a myth. If we look hard enough, we find that most myths have a morsel of truth in them-- small though they may be-- and this one is no exception.

When GW took the oath of office of President in 1789, he had….are you ready for this?….he had only one natural tooth in his mouth. If you’ve ever tried speaking with only one real tooth in your mouth, you’ve got to know what the man went through on the day he recited the oath of office and delivered his Inaugural Address.

But let’s review (and clarify) what I just said about Our First President. On the day he recited the oath of office, GW was wearing a full set of dentures…along with that one real honest-to-goodness tooth that managed to survive his 57 years. As a boy, we’re told, George Washington cracked walnut shells with his teeth. Not surprising, is it,that many of his teeth fell out before he turned thirty? The inside story is that GW had problems with his teeth all his life. Writing in his dairy when he was 24, he noted that he paid 5 shillings to a “Doctor Watson” to remove one of his teeth.

Historical records over the years reveal that GW wore not one but several sets of false teeth. One of his dentists Dr. John Greenwood created dentures fashioned together with wire and spring. By today’s standards they’d be considered Rube Goldberg contraptions. Okay…the burning question: What were his false teeth made of? The records show that GW’s dentures were made of….take your pick…not only cow and human teeth but elephant, walrus and hippopotamus ivory. If that weren't enough to cope with, his dentures required frequent repairs and cleaning. Not to mention the discomfort he experienced along with facial distortion.

GW was very aware of the impact his dentures had on his appearance. In a letter to Dr. Greenwood he complained that his dentures were “already too wide, and two projecting for the parts they rest upon,” adding, “which causes both upper and under lip to bulge out, as if swelled.” In another letter to Dr. Greenwood a year later GW wrote that a set of his dentures had “the effect of forcing the lip out just under the nose.” In the many portraits of GW over the years, all of them show him as very serious, almost statue-like in appearance. None but his closest friends knew the discomfort and pain he endured, accompanied by sore gums, aching teeth and a host of dental miseries. All reflected in his portraits. Ever see a smiling George Washington portrait? If you do, let me know. I’ll pay premium for it. --dv