One of the biggest myths that’s persisted about George Washington over the years (other than that he chopped down a cherry tree and never told a lie) is that he had wooden teeth. That’s since been disproven, but Washington did indeed have terrible dental hygiene, which later in life netted him a set of false choppers. And it turns out half of Washington’s dentures are located in New York City, having taken up residence in the library at East Harlem‘s New York Academy of Medicine for the last 80 years.
Gothamist got a close look at Washington‘s false teeth on a recent visit to the NYAM, and Anne Garner, the library’s Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts, gave us the scoop on how they made their way out of his mouth and into their archives. According to Garner, Washington had several sets of dentures, but in 1789, Manhattan dentist John Greenwood fit him with the lower denture that’s now in NYAM’s possession. He invented the first known “dental foot engine” in 1790. Somehow, the dentures made it back into Greenwood’s possession, and then, as per patriarchal tradition, were handed down to each of Greenwood’s direct male descendants. But in 1937, the only Greenwoods left were two sisters, and they bequeathed the lower dentures unto NYAM (the upper dentures were briefly at the University of Maryland, Baltimore and then the Smithsonian, but went missing in 1981).
These babies aren’t made of wood but hippopotamus ivory, and they’re quite large and cumbersome, which may account for Washington‘s famous pucker. The dentures were inlaid with human teeth, of which six still remain. Whose teeth? Well, “there’s some speculation they were slaves’ teeth,” Garner told Gothamist. “There does seem to be some evidence that Washington at one time paid money for one of his slave’s teeth, but we don’t know if they went into the dentures or not.”
There was also a space left for Washington’s last tooth, the first bicuspid in his left lower jaw. That stayed in his mouth until 1794. “It was pulled out by Greenwood himself,” Garner said. “Washington seems to have come to New York just for the purpose of having Greenwood extract that tooth.” It doesn’t sound like it was a fun trip. “There wouldn’t have been any anesthesia. Just a set of pliers that twist the tooth out,” Garner said.
That tooth somehow also ended up with Greenwood, who initially put it on a watch fob, then transferred it to a safer spot inside a locket bearing the inscription, “In New York, 1790, Greenwood made President George Washington a whole set of teeth, the enclosed tooth is the last tooth that grew in his head.” The Greenwood sisters also gave the locket (and tooth!) to the NYAM:
“A lot of dentists made jewelry also, because it was the same set of tools and the same skillset,” Garner said. She also noted that NYAM got some of Greenwood’s tools, including “dentistry’s first dental engine, a foot-powered drill he made from a spinning wheel,” which sounds awesome until you remember he used that on patients sans painkillers.
By all accounts, Washington had a hell of a time with his teeth, and fought to conceal his rotting gums from the masses. “It was important to put up a show about having healthy teeth because he represented the country,” Garner said. “You had to be healthy, he had to have a healthy mouth. It wasn’t a noble thing to have a lot of tooth decay and no teeth.”
If you’d like to see and/or learn more about Washington’s fake and real teeth, you can contact the library at library@.