A subject that has long fascinated Americans of every age is that of George Washington and his false teeth. Standing at over six feet tall with a lean, muscular body, George Washington embodied physical toughness and rugged strength. He successfully fought off many illnesses in his life, but one area of his physique that showed serious wear and vulnerability was his mouth. Washington had terrible dental health.
Tooth decay was, of course, a serious problem prior to modern era advances in dentistry. Not surprisingly, Washington fell victim to this malady. Unfortunately for Washington, it was a particularly painful and debilitating struggle. In his magisterial biography Washington, Pulitzer Prize winning biographer Ron Chernow writes that Washington's problems were "so severe as to be incapacitating and affected his life in numberless ways."
Over the years, Washington lost one tooth after another. By the time he became President of the United States, he had a single tooth of his own remaining. To compensate for this, Washington required dentures. Contrary to popular belief, Washington's false teeth were not wooden. According to Chernow, Washington's dentures consisted of "natural teeth, inserted into a framework of hippopotamus ivory and anchored on Washington's one surviving tooth." Chernow says that the myth of Washington's false teeth being made of wood stems from the "gradual staining of hairline fractures in the ivory that made it resemble a wood grain."
Washington's dentures painfully distorted his mouth and facial features. The need to so often set his jaws a certain way and tightly close his mouth probably enhanced his tendency to keep a tight rein on his words and emotions. That he lived with pain and discomfort every day undoubtedly bolstered his work ethic, sense of discipline, and dogged persistence. I will leave it to psychologists to more fully explore the ramifications and consequences of George Washington's false teeth, but it's safe to say that they did have an impact on him and thus, at least indirectly, on our nation as well.