HAPPY BIRTHDAY, President Washington!
280 years old February 22, 1732-2012
Dentistry has come a long way.
There must be dozens of portraits of George Washington. I have never seen any with him smiling. Those darn Hippo dentures with the spring openers must have been painful.
Was the throat infection that took George Washington’s life caused by colonies of bacteria that grew in his world famous dentures?
By all reports Washington was a very athletic, strapping man who was taller, (at 6’ 2 ½”,) larger, and stronger than the average countryman of his time. So how is it that, at the age of 67, he became ill and died in only 3 days? Let’s take a look at that question.
George Washington’s suffered from both dental problems and various illnesses in his younger life. He lost his first adult tooth at the young age of 22. By the time he became President, in 1789, at age 57, he had only one tooth remaining, despite daily brushing, use of dentifrice, and mouthwash. At his inauguration, Washington was wearing a full set of dentures which were attached to his final tooth.
Modern historians suggest that mercury oxide, which he was given to treat illnesses such as smallpox and malaria, probably contributed to his tooth loss. He suffered from headache, fever, and severe muscle and joint pain. Over the ensuing years there were attacks of malaria, flu, and rheumatic complaints. Combined with what were most likely genetically poor teeth, and the stress of being Commander of the Continental Army caused constant unrelieved toothaches. In some instances, one cannot help but wonder if his teeth might have been the source of the chronic infections he suffered. His dental and health problems were intertwined. Were there abscessed partial roots still present? His diaries contain multiple references to dental pain.
Washington had frequent dental problems during his tenure as commanding general of the Continental Army. A famous painting of Washington in 1779 shows a scar on his left cheek, believed to be the result of a badly abscessed tooth. One correspondence from Washington to a dentist in 1783 was a request for material to take an impression of his mouth. He would then send the impression back to the dentist for a denture to be made. Washington was treated by no fewer than eight prominent dentists who practiced in colonial America, but his favorite was Dr. John Greenwood.
Dr. Greenwood’s dentures had a base of hippopotamus ivory carved to fit the gums. The upper denture had ivory teeth and the lower plate consisted of eight human teeth fastened by gold pivots that screwed into the base. The set was secured in his mouth by spiral springs. The upper and lower gold plates were connected by springs which pushed the upper and lower plates against the upper and lower ridges of his mouth to hold them in place. Washington actually had to actively close his jaws tightly to make his teeth bite together.
Washington complained to Greenwood about discoloring of his dentures. Dr. Greenwood suggested that Washington refrain from soak his dentures in Port wine and minimize his drinking of wine entirely while wearing his dentures. Had there been a product like SonicBrite in the late 1700’s, the President certainly wouldn’t have had to remove his dentures to enjoy his favorite wine.
His final dentures were made in 1798, the year before he died. This set had a swaged gold plate with individual backing for each tooth and was fastened together by rivets. Today, the lower denture is on display in the National Museum of Dentistry in Baltimore, and another the set was donated to the University of Maryland Dental School in Baltimore, the oldest dental college in the world.