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Presidential Smiles

Historical Facts about Famous Presidents and their Teeth

In honor of Presidents’ Day, we thought we’d take the opportunity to look at some famous President’s teeth… or lack thereof in some cases!

Early Dentistry Practices

Let’s start out by putting a few things into perspective… dentistry in the 18th and 19th centuries looked nothing like our modern-day dental hygiene practices. No pristine dental offices, no high-tech equipment, no anesthesia, no flavored toothpaste, no fluoride rinses, and no dental floss! Toothbrushes were commonly made of animal bone with hog, horse or badger hair as bristles. Toothpaste was made of crushed seashells or charcoal, which lead to bad breath and bad gum health. If someone didn’t have a lot of money and needed a tooth pulled, they didn’t call the local dentist… they called a blacksmith because he had access to a wide variety of metal tools. Ouch!

Our First Commander-in-Chief certainly had problems with his teeth!

Based on George Washington’s personal diary entries, it appears that he had problems with his teeth and gums throughout his life! He frequently mentioned aching teeth, lost teeth, inflamed gums, ill-fitting dentures, and a host of other dental issues. Despite his efforts to regularly brush his teeth with tooth powder and scrape his tongue of bacteria, Washington lost his first tooth at age 24 and was wearing a full set of dentures by age 57. At the time of his Presidential inauguration in 1789, he only had one working tooth remaining. In 1796 he allowed dentist Dr. John Greenwood to pull that final tooth and keep it as a memento! We don’t know how many dentures (partial and full) Washington had over the course of his life, but we do know he complained many were ‘ill-fitting’ and changed the shape of his face, mouth and jaw. He even saved several of his own teeth in hopes they could be used in set of dentures!

Speaking of his dentures, we’ve all heard the stories about President Washington and his wooden teeth, but are they true? Susan Schoelwer, Senior Curator at Mount Vernon, answers the frequently asked question, “What were George Washington’s teeth made of?”

Washington’s dentures were not only constructed differently, but made of different materials each time… likely the dentist(s) who made them were continually experimenting! Collectively, the denture materials included: hippopotamus, walrus, and probably elephant ivory; cow, horse, and human teeth; lead, brass, silver, gold, and tiny wood pegs. Only two of the dentures contain human teeth, for the incisors on the lower jaw. Some of these materials, particularly after they had been stained, took on a wooden-like complexion, hence fueling the myth. But rest assured, wood was never used in the construction of George Washington’s dentures!

Interested in seeing Washington’s only surviving complete set of dentures in person? Mount Vernon has them on display at the Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center.

Other fun facts about various President’s and their teeth

  • Legend has it that Ulysses S. Grant carried only his trusty toothbrush into battle for six days during the Civil War! What we do know is his affinity for cigars and alcohol took a toll on his mouth and his overall health. In 1884 our 18th president was diagnosed with throat cancer and died the following year.
  • Abraham Lincoln had an aversion to dentists, perhaps because one of them broke part of his jawbone while pulling a tooth in 1841. Ironically, when Lincoln was assassinated, he was embalmed by a dentist! Dr. Charles De Costa Brown, a physician who moved to New York to study and practice dentistry also took an interest in embalming. Brown was appointed an official government embalmer during the Civil War and went on to establish an embalming office in Washington DC.
  • Theodore Roosevelt, our 26th President, was notable for a lot of things, but his “squirrel teeth” and his “walrus mustache” were a sensation! In a pre-TV/smartphone era, many people used Teddy’s teeth to recognize him as the President when he was out in public. While his worn-down teeth matched great with that gritty personality, they also signified that he grinded and clinched his teeth a lot!
  • Early in his second term, in 1893, Grover Cleveland was diagnosed with oral cancer on the roof of his mouth. With the country entering a depression, Cleveland feared that the news of his cancer would cause more economic panic. So he, along with six doctors, secretly underwent surgery on a yacht as it sailed from the New York Harbor to Cape Code. Reporters told the public he was on a fishing trip. The truth didn’t come out until almost 25 years later, when one of the surgeons finally confessed.
  • Dwight Eisenhower lost a crown while eating chicken one night in 1954. His subsequent disappearance for a hush-hush trip to the dentist led to a false news report that he had died of a heart attack, as well as allegations that he had been meeting secretly with aliens from outer space!
  • John F. Kennedy’s teeth saved a fellow soldier from drowning during World War II after their PT boat was sunk by a Japanese destroyer. JFK was noted to have towed a fellow shipmate to safety by holding his life jacket between his teeth. The feat took four hours and three miles to accomplish! Strong will and strong teeth!

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