Poor George Washington had bad teeth. They were often blamed for the shortest speech ever given by a President—just 135 words and a mere 90 seconds to deliver it. The outstanding commander of the Continental Army and the first president of the United States was often perceived as boring, stiff-jawed and bad tempered. There may be a reason for this persona as some interesting facts about dentistry reveal.
Should we blame his poor image on his teeth? Perhaps, if you study the dentures he had to endure. His dentures consisted of crude fabrication of teeth that came with springs and bolts to hold these dentures in the mouth. Imagine trying to deliver a speech with the dentures rattling and air escaping through the gaps between the teeth.
History tells us that George Washington’s troubles with his teeth started when he was twenty-two. Over the course of the next thirty-five years, his teeth started falling off, one by one. And no, it was not because of his poor oral hygiene. According to records, he took heavy doses of mercurous chloride for his many infections (he was reputedly beset with all kinds of ailments from dysentery to smallpox), which in turn may have led to the destruction of his teeth. His fastidious brushing, use of dentifrice and mouthwash didn’t help much. By the time, he had his inauguration in 1789, he had one good tooth left.
For most of his adult life, he grappled with dental problems. Constant toothaches, infected gums and abscessed teeth, which we now know are symptoms of periodontal disease, plagued him. Initially, he had partial dentures with hippopotamus ivory carved to fit the upper gum and eight human teeth held by gold pivots for his lower plate. Spiral springs were used to secure them to his mouth. He had quite a few dentures made and he often returned them for adjustments and repairs. Clumsy and ill-fitting, they were forcing his lips out and his portraits revealed unfortunate facial changes. The final set of denture, made just before his death had a swagged gold plate, fastened by rivets.
Contrary to popular beliefs, none of dentures were made of wood. His four known sets of dentures include gold, ivory, lead, human and animal teeth (horse and donkey components likely).
Looking at George Washington’s ordeal with his oral health, thankfully, dentures have come a long way. Modern-day dentures look like real and are designed to make eating, talking and smiling as natural as possible. Held in by dental implants, they can be almost as natural as real teeth. Had George Washington lived today, he probably would have smiled more often (and therefore, deemed more friendly) and his speech would definitely be longer than 90 seconds.
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