You’ve probably heard the legend that says that the first president of the United States had wooden teeth, but I hadn’t until this week and I’ve become entirely fascinated by it. He didn’t actually have wooden teeth though; the facts are that George Washington had pretty bad dental health as a young man, starting when he was 22. It is thought that this started because he had poor health and was given mercurous chloride to cure him of various illnesses such as dengue fever, dysentery, malaria, flu and so on. Consequently he lost all of his teeth, whereupon Dr. John Greenwood crafted him two sets of dentures to replace them. Dr. Greenwood was a fantastic doctor in his time and Washington’s teeth were carved from hippopotamus ivory and gold. Don’t ask me why anybody would need teeth made of ivory and gold; I guess when you’re the president and you can, you just do.
Regardless of what they were made of, though, I think these teeth were probably the most uncomfortable things to have in your mouth, ever, because of the extraordinary way they were made. The two sets of dentures were connected with springs, which held the teeth in place by pushing them against the roof of Washington’s mouth. This all sounds like a genius plan until you think about how on earth he ever managed to keep his mouth shut; surely whenever he stopped pressing his teeth together, his mouth would just ping open. I used to play a bit of rugby at school and we had to wear mouth guards to stop all our teeth being knocked out, and I will always remember how incredibly strange it felt to wear it – I felt like every time I opened my mouth, it was going to fall out. In fact, I seem to recall that exact thing happening to a teammate of mine one game when she yelled out for the ball. How uncomfortable for the president, then, having to constantly clamp his jaws together in order to keep his teeth in place!
As it turns out, the president had a horrible time with his teeth his whole life. Apparently he was always at the dentists requesting new, better fitting dentures, complaining that the ones he was wearing at the time were ill-fitting or uncomfortable in some other way. If you look at some of his portraits, his mouth actually does look quite swollen and puffed out. When you think about it, it must have been a terrible thing to have to endure his whole life. I had braces fitted on my teeth for just over a year, I think, and it was the worst 18 months of my life; the only thing that got me through the scraping, tightening and horrible discomfort of it all was knowing that at the end of it all, I would have a much nicer smile. George Washington didn’t even have that – his teeth just got worse and worse as long as he lived. What a terrible thing.
Anyway when Washington died, one set of his teeth was given to a dental university who in turn passed them on to some exhibition or another, where they were stolen. I can think of only two reasons anybody would want to steal a deceased mans false teeth: a) because they were fixated on the president and wanted something to remember him by, or b) because they contained gold and are therefore probably worth a fair sum. I like to think it was the latter, just because the former is more than a little creepy, but that’s beside the point. Either way, someone stole the presidents’ dentures, and they’ve never been found.
Anyway, I really don’t know what my point was now, I can’t seem to recall. I don’t even know how the legend of his supposed wooden teeth came about; if anybody does, please do let me know, I’d be interested to hear it. I’d also be glad to hear from you if you think you might know the whereabouts of George Washington’s teeth. I hear they’re worth a lot.