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Smile, George

It’s challenging to judge historical figures based on our standards, especially our standards of dentistry. For many, many years, we just didn’t understand how important it was to care for our teeth. Ever watch a western film made between 1950 and 1990? All those cowboys always had perfect, gleaming white teeth.  Sorry folks, but that wasn’t accurate. Dentists were few and far between, and most of what they did was pull teeth.  People didn’t see the dentist every six months, but only when they needed a tooth pulled.

Gary Cooper
Gary Cooper from an old Time Magazine


Ever hear the story of George Washington’s wooden teeth? Well that was never accurate. But he did wear dentures and for years he suffered from a variety of medical conditions caused by poor dental hygiene. Can you imagine what dentures were like in the mid 1700’s?  They were like this:

GWs Dentures


Washington started losing his teeth as a young man and by the time he became our first President, he only had one original tooth left.  He wore a series of dentures, none of them made of wood but rather bone, ivory, brass, lead and gold filament. No wonder the man was never smiling. Can you imagine having those clunky things in your mouth?  And the base was made of lead!

George Washington had such bad teeth that he was constantly in search of a better dentist. And the best dentist available was still practicing mid 1700s dentistry. In his later years, his dentures gave his jaw an unnatural bulge and caused him a great amount of pain and discomfort. Historians have often pointed to his appearance in earlier portraits and the portrait used on the one dollar bill which was based on Gilbert Stuart’s portrait.

But even with all of his dental problems, the man still managed to form an Army out of civilians, rally the troops through a brutal winter at Valley Forge, turn those men into a formidable fighting force, defeat the British Army, become our first President and get his self on the dollar bill and the quarter.

the delaware
Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze. 1851


So when you want to fuss about going to the dentist, just remember what this guy went through.

Happy Fourth of July!

For more on George Washington’s teeth.


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