Revolutionary dentures

Display: Museum gets to the root of the famed -- and sometimes false -- history of Washington's dental problems.

February 21, 2000|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

They are known as America's most famous false teeth.

Yet contrary to a popular myth that has survived more than 200 years, President George Washington's dentures were never made of wood.

They were, however, constructed of almost everything else.

Cattle teeth, lead, gold, elephant ivory and hippopotamus bone were all used at some point to create dentures to relieve the Revolutionary War general's lifelong mouthful of agony.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in the Feb. 21 editions of The Sun incorrectly identified the author of a play on George Washington's teeth performed at the National Museum of Dentistry. The writer was Scott Colburn. The Sun regrets the error.

The "oral" history of the nation's first president -- whose birthday tomorrow has evolved into the Presidents Day holiday -- is on display at the Dr. Samuel D. Harris National Museum of Dentistry at the University of Maryland's Dental School in Baltimore.

A room on the second floor of the dentistry museum at 31 S. Greene St. is dedicated to Washington's bouts with several sets of dentures and the letters he sent seeking help from his favorite dentist, John Greenwood of New York.

Four sets of Washington's dentures are on display at the museum.

Museum operators use Washington's tales of woe to warn schoolchildren to take care of their teeth.

"He is such a famous person, and it's documented that he had such a terrible time with his teeth," museum director Rosemary Fetter said yesterday. "It's a good lesson to kids and people who get frustrated with the continual care it takes to keep your teeth healthy."

Washington lost his teeth during the last 40 of his 67 years. By the time he contacted Greenwood in 1789, at the start of his presidency, he was 57 and had one tooth remaining, in the lower front of his mouth.

He was so sensitive about the problem that in his several official portraits -- all on display at the museum -- he isn't smiling. Washington lamented that the dentures caused his face to swell, causing him to become grouchy.

He even skipped delivering his second inaugural address for fear that his dentures would slide out of his mouth. The speech was published in newspapers instead.

Dentures didn't halt Washington's woes. One set included gold springs, which cut into his tongue and caused sores. (A set of gold-plated Washington dentures was stolen from a Smithsonian Institution display in 1981 and never recovered.)

Washington's reliance on Greenwood was so critical that the Baltimore dental museum recently contracted with a local theater group, the Open Space Art Company, to perform a play about their relationship. Two actors posing as Washington and Greenwood performed "Does George Washington Sleep Here?" yesterday to about 50 visitors sitting around the Washington exhibit.

Museum curator and dentist, Dr. John Hyson of Towson, wrote the play based on letters exchanged between Washington and Greenwood. According to the play, Washington had such a strong set of teeth as a young man that he could crack walnuts. But by the time he led American forces in 1776, his need for a dentist was critical. Freeing New York from British occupation was necessary to win the war, but Washington had a personal interest, too: He couldn't see his dentist until the city was won.

Washington urged Greenwood to keep the dental problems a secret for fear that it could cause him national embarrassment. When he died in 1799, the president was buried with a set of Greenwood's dentures in his mouth.

Yesterday, Dr. Steve Riesenberg, a dentist, rode with his family from, of all places, Washington, N.J., to see the exhibit and take pictures of the nation's most famous dentures.

"It does spur a lot of interest. The kids love it," said Riesenberg, who noted that February is national Dental Awareness Month. "I came down to take some pictures because I have to give a talk to kids next week."

James Carr, 38, was visiting the museum with a group of Washington, D.C., children interested in animal teeth. Carr walked out knowing much more about the man his city was named after.

"I didn't know he had those problems with his teeth," Carr said of Washington. "And I thought his teeth were wooden."

The museum has hired the actors to tour area schools. The exhibit and play had the desired effect on 9-year-old Louis Trostle, who visited the museum with his grandmother, Audrey Graul, a Bel Air dental assistant.

Louis walked out of the museum yesterday a little more concerned about his teeth thanks to the history lesson on the nation's first president.

"Always go to the dentist," he said.

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