Everyone’s heard the legend about founding father George Washington’s wooden teeth, but have you also heard that it’s not true?
Washington did wear dentures, but they were made of ivory, gold, and even bone — never wood. Where did the tales of our first President’s most famous quirk come from, and how did it come to be established as fact, to the point that school teachers were including it in their curriculum?
English professor William M. Etter, Ph.D., who writes for the Mount Vernon website, is unsure of the explanation, though it’s likely because Washington’s ivory teeth became stained over time, leading to a grainy appearance that seemed wood-like.
“Indeed, in a 1798 letter to Washington, (John) Greenwood emphasized the importance of cleaning these dentures regularly after examining ones Washington had used and sent to him for repair: ‘the sett you sent me from philadelphia…was very black…Port wine being sower takes of[f] all the polish,'” Etter wrote, quoting from a letter from Greenwood, Washington’s dentist.
As recently as 2005, researchers were studying Washington’s teeth. Using laser scans, researchers determined the president’s teeth were made of ivory, lead, and human and animal teeth. Wood does not make a good material for creating false teeth.
Washington suffered from teeth problems beginning in his 20s, the Mount Vernon website says, and his personal belongings and writings contained many references to dental bills, aching teeth, inflamed gums, and ill-fitting dentures.
Though Washington preferred to keep his dental problems a “state secret,” a letter about the then-general’s teeth served to mislead the British during the American Revolution and help American forces.
The British intercepted a personal letter Washington had written to his dentist back in Philadelphia, asking for dental cleaning tools, because he wasn’t likely to be back in Philadelphia anytime soon.
This letter convinced the British military leader that the military correspondence they had intercepted in the same package was true as well, and they adjusted their military strategies accordingly. That move allowed the American military to defeat the British at Yorktown in 1781.