George Washington was America’s first president. The rumor that he wore wooden dentures may be one of the most enduring and widespread myths about his personal life. The claim was untrue as President Washington did not have wooden teeth. A set of his dentures are included as part of the historical exhibits at Mount Vernon. They are not made of wood.
President Washington’s Dental Challenges
Although the wooden teeth story is only a myth, President Washington did have serious dental challenges. He started losing his teeth from as early as his twenties. Eventually, he was forced to wear unsightly dentures made out various materials such as rare hippopotamus ivory, brass, gold, and metal fasteners. He also used castaway teeth from humans (such as his slaves), donkeys, horses, and cows.
President Washington had two great dentists. One of the dentists, who was also his personal friend, was known as Jean Pierre Le Mayeur. Mayeur performed “tooth transplantation” on the president in the mid-1780s. His other dentist was named John Greenwood. Greenwood served him for most of his presidency. By the time of his inauguration as president in 1789, President Washington only had one natural tooth left. Greenwood made him special set of dentures out of brass, gold, and ivory.
Although they were the best at the time, the dentures left President Washington disfigured and often in pain. Wearing the dentures resulted in President Washington’s distorted face as seen in most of his portraits including the one on the one dollar bill.
Origin of the Rumor
The origin of the “wooden teeth” rumor is unclear. However, most historians and dental scientists believe that people may have been misled by the sight of stained dentures. It was hard to maintain President Washington’s artificial teeth’s whiteness in spite of the president’s dental hygiene. The teeth easily turned brown. The browning may have even been caused by the president’s habit of drinking fortified wine. Hence, they had to be taken to Greenwood for regular cleaning and care.
Nonetheless, there might have been some occasional unsightly teeth appearance in public that may have started the rumor that the president had wooden teeth. Wearing the dentures caused discomfort to his jaw and sometimes forced the president’s lips to swell. They may have been seen by people who did not know the contents of the teeth. However, wood was never used in Washington’s dentures. It was also not commonly employed by dentists at that time in as much as dentistry was still in its infant stages of development.
Sacrifice of His Health for Public Service
President George Washington rarely laughed or smiled, perhaps to hide his teeth. Consequently, he looked distant and a no-nonsense person. The rumors of his wooden teeth and the stories about the challenges of his teeth may have been efforts to see him as a normal person with challenges similar to ordinary American citizens. Despite these struggles in his health, he chose the higher calling of serving the public rather than nursing his pain.