Dental Dilemmas of a U.S. Founding Father

Even as our country battled for its independence, one of the United States’ founding fathers struggled with his oral health. George Washington dealt with many health issues throughout his life. It’s unclear whether his bouts with inflamed lungs, small pox, “pain in the head,” dysentery, dengue fever, malaria, flu and the then-common treatments for them caused him constant toothaches or if his bad oral health left his immune system vulnerable to their contamination.
Whatever the cause and effect order is, George Washington was much involved with dental procedures and denture experimentation for more than 45 years. It was a constant worry, pain, and shameful subject for him. However, this embarrassment worked in his favor in 1871. During the Revolutionary War, he’d written to a dentist requesting tooth cleaning supplies to be redirected, and the letter was in a package of documents that laid out U.S. military movements. Due to Washington stating in his letter that he had “little prospect of being in Philadelphia soon” opposing British commander Sir Henry Clinton was convinced that there was no rush to protect the lone command run by Lord Cornwallis near Yorktown. He had no idea Washington and Rochambeau had just changed plans to move south and trap Cornwallis. This accidental ruse led to a brutal British defeat.
A humble Washington was soon voted into Presidency. When he took office, he only had a single tooth remaining. To give his speeches and make public appearances, he utilized the latest denture options. Materials for these mouth places included lead, hippopotamus and elephant ivory, gold, equestrian incisors, and human teeth. The legend of his wooden teeth is just that, a tall tale. It most likely stemmed from the stained condition of his ivory dentures.

It’s suggested that the reason he often looked so solemn was due to three factors. First, that several sets of his dentures were spring loaded, requiring him to keep his jaw clenched so his mouth wouldn’t literally pop open. Secondly, that he often stuffed his cheeks with cotton to fill out the hollowed cheeks where his natural teeth used to be. Lastly, his mouth was in constant pain. Check out this video that shows you the only remaining full set of Washington’s dentures at the Mount Vernon Museum.

The above mentioned pain was another reason that Washington gave the shortest inaugural speech in history when he was voted into presidency again in 1793:
“Fellow Citizens, I am again called upon by the voice of my country to execute the functions of its Chief Magistrate. When the occasion proper for it shall arrive, I shall endeavor to express the high sense I entertain of this distinguished honor, and of the confidence which has been reposed in me by the people of united America. Previous to the execution of any official act of the President the Constitution requires an oath of office. This oath I am now about to take, and in your presence: That if it shall be found during my administration of the Government I have in any instance violated willingly or knowingly the injunctions thereof, I may (besides incurring constitutional punishment) be subject to the upbraidings of all who are now witnesses of the present solemn ceremony.”

Check out the fun facts about Washington and all his dental dilemmas in the awesome timeline below and share it with friends and family this holiday weekend. It’s clear that Washington valued what citizens of America were doing to be free and what it stood for. Let us remember his devotion as we celebrate our own patriotism this 4th of July!


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About Mark C. Marchbanks, D.D.S.

Dr. Mark Marchbanks has practiced dentistry in Arlington Texas since 1983. He enjoys caring for patients young and old. You can find Dr. Marchbanks on
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