George Washington Teeth: How Did Wooden Myth Begin?

Monday, 25 Aug 2014 04:19 PM

By Morgan Chilson

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The oft-repeated myth of President George Washington’s wooden teeth has become such a part of history that many writings as recently as the mid-twentieth century include it.

Washington did wear dentures, but they were made of ivory, gold and even bone — never wood, associate English professor William M. Etter, Ph.D., wrote on the Mount Vernon website.

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In exploring how the myth started and became so well-established that schools taught children for years that Washington’s teeth were wooden, Etter was unable to come up with a clear-cut explanation. Probably the most likely reason, he explained, was that Washington’s ivory teeth became stained over time, leading to a grainy appearance that seemed wood-like.

“Indeed, in a 1798 letter to Washington, (John) Greenwood emphasized the importance of cleaning these dentures regularly after examining ones Washington had used and sent to him for repair: 'the sett you sent me from philadelphia...was very black...Port wine being sower takes of[f] all the polish,'" Etter wrote, quoting from a letter from Greenwood, Washington’s dentist.

Wood, though, does not make a good material to use for creating fake teeth, Etter said.

As recently as 2005, researchers were studying Washington’s teeth. Using laser scans, researchers determined the president’s teeth were made of ivory, lead, and human and animal teeth.

Urgent: Who Is the Greatest American President in History?

Washington suffered with teeth problems from his 20s on, the Mount Vernon website said, and in his personal belongings and writings were many references to dental bills, aching teeth, inflamed gums and ill-fitting dentures.

Although Washington preferred to keep his dental problems a “state secret,” the Mount Vernon website said a letter about the then-general’s teeth served to mislead the British during the American Revolution and help American forces.

The British intercepted a personal letter Washington had sent to his dentist in Philadelphia asking for dental cleaning tools; in it, Washington said he had “little prospect of being in Philadelphia soon.” This letter convinced the British leader that military correspondence in the packet was true, too, and they adjusted their military strategy accordingly.

That move allowed the American military to defeat the British at Yorktown in 1781.

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