We all know that George Washington cut his father’s cherry tree and couldn’t tell a lie, but did he really have wooden teeth? As it turns out, the answer to that enduring myth is “no,” but apparently, he did have really awful dental hygiene. His teeth were so bad, in fact, that he ended up with a set of false teeth, and half of them have been on display for the past 80 years at the library of the New York Academy of Medicine in East Harlem, New York City.
How on earth did Washington’s false teeth end up in New York? According to the library’s curator, Washington had a few sets of dentures, but this half-set of faux choppers (lower dentures, as it happens) were fitted by a dentist named John Greenwood in Manhattan in 1789. They were handed down from Greenwood to his male descendants, and in 1937, when there were only sisters left in the family line, the dentures were bequeathed to the Academy of Medicine. Sadly, the upper dentures have been “MIA” since 1981, after having been at the University of Maryland in Baltimore and then the Smithsonian.
While not made of wood, these false teeth are even more exotic — they’re constructed from hippopotamus ivory! Quite large and rather cumbersome, the dentures were inlaid with actual human teeth, and six of them are still intact. Whose teeth are they? Speculation is that they were slaves’ teeth, although it isn’t certain. Odder still, space was left for Washington’s sole remaining tooth, his first bicuspid from his left lower jaw, which stayed in his mouth until 1794, at which time it was pulled out by his Manhattan dentist. Fortunately, there is now such a thing as anesthesia. During Washington’s time, the only tool involved in the operation was a set of pliers.
There’s still more to this strange story. This pulled tooth also ended up in Greenwood’s possession. He first put it on a watch fob, and then inside a locket, which included an inscription. Greenwood’s sisters also gave the locket, complete with tooth, to the NYAM. Apparently, since similar tools were involved in jewelry construction as were required in dentistry at that time, this is not considered unusual. The NYAM also acquired some of the dentist’s tools, which included a drill that was powered by foot, made from an old spinning wheel. That sounds pretty cool, until you remember: no anesthesia.
If you ever despair about the occasional cavity and bemoan the effort it takes to care for your teeth and regularly visit your dentist, consider George Washington’s situation. He apparently took great pains to hide his rotting gums and false teeth from the public, wanting to make a good impression as the nation’s representative. It wasn’t considered noble to have bad teeth — or even worse, no teeth!
If you’re intrigued and you would like to see Washington’s real and fake teeth or learn more about his Manhattan dental history, contact the NYAM library at firstname.lastname@example.org.