George Washington’s Teeth

Check out the first president’s ivory dentures and other oddities at the National Museum of Dentistry! Click here for PDF Copy

George Washington did not have wooden teeth; instead, he took a cue from elephants and wore ivory dentures.  And if you head to the National Museum of Dentistry here in Baltimore, you can check out the founding father’s choppers for yourself.  A bit of buzz has stirred up over Washington’s teeth, thanks to a recent discount offer by the museum: anyone who wore red, white, or blue was granted $1 off admission during Presidents’ Day Weekend.  This promotion has become a small sort of tradition for the museum.

Opened in 1996, the National Museum of Dentistry is located on 31 South Greene St.  It is also part of the campus of the University of Maryland, Baltimore.  It is a Smithsonian Institution-affiliated gallery that is also attached to the dental school at the University of Maryland (the nation’s first).  It is designated by Congress as the official museum of the dental profession.  Along with Washington’s dentures, other notable exhibits include Queen Victoria’s personal dental instruments, and a collection of various toothbrushes from the 1800s to the present.

The president’s teeth are just one part of a gallery in the museum devoted to George Washington and his dental issues.  Also included are the forceps that were made to pull his teeth on the Revolutionary War battlefield and examples of presidential portraits that show how tooth loss affected his appearance.

The myth about wooden dentures seems to have arisen from the fact that ivory dentures tend to stain like wood after years of eating and drinking, suggests Dr. Scott Swank, the museum’s curator.  Washington’s tooth troubles seem to have initially arisen when he lost his first tooth when he was 22.  He would have only one tooth left in his mouth by the time of his first inauguration in 1789.  As treatment for the many illnesses he suffered in his life, he was given mercurous chloride, which is known to destroy teeth.  His favorite dentist, John Greenwood, set some of Washington’s dentures in gold and held them in place with springs that held the upper and lower teeth together.  Legend has it that has it that Washington’s second inaugural address was the country’s shortest ever because of the intense discomfort and embarrassment caused by his teeth.

According to Jonathan Landers, the museum’s executive director, the museum is really all about “the great strides that we’ve made in oral health.”  He made his point to the Baltimore Sun by saying that the American people would be “appalled” if President Obama took office with his teeth in the same condition that Washington’s were when he took office.

Alas, Washington’s dentures at the National Museum of Dentistry do not quite have the same drawing power as the Mona Lisa at the Louvre.  When Pikesville resident Seva Polotsky visited the museum during the Presidents’ Day promotion, she did not even head upstairs to see the presidential prosthesis until she was reminded of the historical synchronicity of the moment.  Though it may not be the flashiest exhibit at the flashiest museum, the management are pleased with the responses of their visitors.   According to spokeswoman Amy Pelsinsky, people are not so keen on what to expect when they arrive, but they usually leave smiling … and brushing!

Among the other tooth-tacular exhibits at the National Museum of Dentistry are “32 Terrific Teeth,” a two-floor exhibition that includes representations of teeth in popular culture (including commercials with Bill Cosby and Farrah Fawcett); MouthPower, an interactive learning laboratory for elementary schoolchildren; and “The Narwhal,” which explores the science and mythology of a 5-foot tusked Arctic whale.  The museum is open Wednesday-Saturday from 10 AM-4 PM and Sunday 1-4 PM.  Admission for adults is $7, but students can check out the teeth for only $5.

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