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July 3rd, 2015

Our Founding Fathers: The State of Their Oral Health

Category: cincinnati dentist, dental health

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Much of American legend says that George Washington had a set of wooden teeth. The story goes that he lost his first (adult) tooth when he was 22, but by the time he became President, he had just one tooth left! By that time, he was 57 years young.

So how did he actually lose his teeth over the years?

John Adams was said to have claimed it was Brazil nuts that he would crack his teeth on. Today, we know it’s never a good idea to use your teeth as “tools” or to chomp or crunch down on items (food or otherwise) that can traumatize the teeth.

Historians said he could have faced major decay because of mercury oxide as a result of being treated for smallpox and malaria. In all likelihood, it could have been a combination of these factors, as well as a lack of modern oral care and technology.

Although urban myth continues to say he had wooden teeth, he actually had a set of teeth carved likely from dairy cattle, elephant ivory or even hippopotamus. These face-disfiguring dentures were very uncomfortable and apparently were very ill fitting.

When Washington was sworn into office as the first President of the United States, he actually had swollen, burning gums. When his dentures would open and shut, they would clack and creak.

Washington was often in pain due to his oral decay, and it’s believed he would take pain killers (of that age) for this constant pain he experienced. It’s interesting because Presidents of that time were never supposed to show any sort of weakness or signs of pain.

George Washington’s dentures in the collection at Mount Vernon

George Washington’s dentures in the collection at Mount Vernon.

But what about the other Founding Fathers’ oral health and habits?

George Washington wasn’t the only one who lost many of his teeth: so did Benjamin Franklin. Franklin is said to have taken mercury pills for an illness, and as a result, he lost several teeth.

As far as daily oral health habits,  John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and James Monroe would have all likely brushed their teeth each day.

People during the 1700s would use a form of mouthwash, and sometimes a tongue scraper. Toothpowders were made of pumice, borax, roots and herbs and sometimes even burnt bread or tobacco! In actuality, these tooth powders could actually destroy the tooth enamel. For the “mouthwash,” our Founding Fathers may have used a solution that was a mix of herbs, resins of balsam, or myrrh.

And one more myth…

It’s a myth that Patrick Henry, famous for his “Give me Liberty, or give me death!” speech actually died of a toothache. In reality, he may have complained of a toothache, but he did not die of a toothache. He actually died due to cancer.

One thing is for sure: we know much more than we did during the time of our Founding Fathers, and we also have greater access to care and state-of-the-art dental technology to keep our smiles looking great for a lifetime.

Sources

http://www.mountvernon.org/research-collections/digital-encyclopedia/article/false-teeth/

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/29/upshot/george-washingtons-weakness-his-teeth.html?_r=0&abt=0002&abg=0

Lloyd, John; Mitchinson, John (2006). The Book of General Ignorance. New York: Harmony Books. p. 97. ISBN 978-0-307-39491-0. Retrieved July 3, 2011.

Glover, Barbara (Summer–Fall 1998). “George Washington—A Dental Victim”.The Riversdale Letter. Retrieved June 30, 2006.

Dentures, 1790–1799, George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate, Museum and Gardens

Mary V. Thompson, “The Private Life of George Washington’s Slaves”, Frontline, PBS

“The Portrait—George Washington:A National Treasure”. Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. Retrieved January 21, 2011.

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