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George Washington's Personal Torment

By A.K. Patch on Mar 09, 2017
From his early days in the British army, forming a rearguard and surviving Braddock’s Massacre in 1755, to the miraculous success of the Revolutionary War against England, and then his two terms as president, George Washington is widely known for steadfast leadership against overwhelming odds.
Yet, all his life he struggled with dental problems. With modern dentistry’s ability to anesthetize for comfort and restore for beauty and function, one might wonder how people endured dental procedures a couple of hundred years ago. They must have been far tougher than us.
Extractions with no anesthetic, abscesses unable to be controlled by antibiotics or treated by root canal therapy, the thought of it all could make one cringe. Liking modern dentistry a bit more?
Through his youth and during the Revolutionary War, notes and diaries mention his troubles with infections, bad teeth and ill-fitting dentures. In fact, by the time had taken his first term as president, he had only one tooth left. The dentures he did have were not stable. They clacked, and being held together by a thick spring, creaked as well. The dentures made his upper and lower lips jut out abnormally, altering his appearance.
One can only imagine how much difficulty he had holding them in his mouth while speaking.
Described as tight-lipped, even reclusive at times, it would difficult for him to speak at length. One could easily understand why his second inauguration speech, the shortest of any president, one hundred and thirty-five words, might be a function of his lack of control with loose false teeth.
That he had wooden teeth is a myth. His procession of false teeth likely had metal and bone substructure and animal or human teeth. Washington reserved some of his own extracted teeth to be housed in his dentures. There is documentation that he paid 122 shillings for nine teeth from Negroes, maybe slaves from his residence on Mount Vernon.
As dynamic and pivotal a figure for the founding of the United States Washington was, we might imagine how much more forceful and influential he might have been had he not been so restrained and embarrassed by his poor dental health and replacements available at the time. His contemporaries even made observations about his reluctance to speak in public.
With all the challenges he endured in helping to found our nation, Washington’s struggles with the basic of human functions of talking and eating allow even more wonder for this Founding Father.
Allan Patch is the author of the contemporary/historical fiction thriller Apollo Series. Passage at Delphi and Delphi's Chosen use contemporary characters, historical encounters, and page-turning adventure to pose the question: what must we learn from our past to ensure our future. Read more from Allan at