On The Matter of False Teeth


Present-day Americans take the miracles of modern dentistry for granted. We forget that in the Good Old Days, there were precious few people who made it to age 30 with all their teeth intact, and almost none who had any teeth left at all by the time they hit 50 (if they lived that long). The scourge of dental caries was (and perhaps still is) the most common disease of humans. While some species don't have much of a problem with it, humans, thanks to a long life span and a diet that often includes abrasive grit and other damaging materials, have always suffered tooth loss.

One famous sufferer was The Father of Our Country, George Washington, shown here in a portrait by Charles Wilson Peale. Washington lost all of his natural teeth pretty early in his life. He was a rich man, and could afford to have false teeth made, but the crude contraptions of the 18th Century were a far cry from the Space-Age polymers and metals we use today. Washington had several sets of false teeth, mostly made of hippopotamus ivory, gold, and wire springs. He is known to have suffered terribly from these, and complained in letters about them. The grim, tight-lipped image of Washington on the dollar bill comes from the fact that when he sat for the portrait he was having major problems with the latest set and he was trying hard to keep them in place. Peale's painting shows him as a vigorous, commanding, and powerful specimen of American manhood, as the Commander in Chief of the Continental Army...but you have to wonder whether the painful goading of his false teeth somehow drove him to fury that he unleashed on the British at Yorktown, and what the outcome of the Revolution would have been had he not suffered from caries.

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