Everybody knows George Washington wore false teeth, but the conventional story – that they were wooden – is myth, not fact. Recent laser scans of the first American president’s dentures reveal they were constructed from a variety of materials, including ivory, gold, and animal teeth. The Founding Father started losing his teeth at age 22, and had only one natural tooth remaining by the time of his inauguration in 1789. But even Dallas dentists might be surprised to discover that the history of false teeth stretches back far longer than Washington’s day; believe it or not, these essential prosthetics have been around for millennia.
As early as 700 BC, Etruscans constructed tooth replacements out of human and animal teeth, a practice that continued until the nineteenth century. Complete dentures that resembled the modern-day versions appeared in sixteenth-century Japan and were made out of wood. By the eighteenth century, ivory and porcelain teeth had been introduced, followed by high-quality dentures constructed from porcelain mounted on gold plates. Eventually, more elaborate materials were replaced by resin and plastic compounds (probably a good thing, if you can imagine trying to chew a T-bone with a set of porcelain falsies).
Washington offers a fascinating case history in dentistry and denture technology – so much so that an entire museum exhibit is dedicated to his oral health. Dallas visitors to Baltimore with a particular interest in the subject can visit the National Museum of Dentistry to see a set of the first president’s ivory dentures and learn about his troublesome teeth – or rather, lack thereof.
True, dental technology has come a long way from the days of animal teeth, ivory bridgework, and potentially toxic metals. But tooth replacement is still a science (or perhaps an art) that requires a fair amount of skill, especially when it comes to full sets of teeth. Indeed, an entire specialized subset of dentistry – prosthodontics – is devoted to the design, implantation, and correction of dentures. Advances in technology mean that dentures are more sophisticated than ever. Modern sets are custom-fit to the patient’s oral structure and formed with materials designed to mimic a real set of teeth.
George Washington was one of the greatest leaders in history, but he also had to have his mouth stuffed with cotton just to look normal in a portrait. Denture wearers in Dallas today are better off, with access to sophisticated oral medicine that Washington could never have imagined.