Dental museum presents truth about Washington's false teeth

Facility celebrates president's birthday

February 18, 2002|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

There was cherry soda, "I Cannot Tell A Lie" cherry pie and the following warning from the wife of our country's Founding Father: Don't call him "George."

George Washington's life, presidency and his false teeth, too, were celebrated yesterday at the Dr. Samuel D. Harris National Museum of Dentistry in Baltimore as part of an annual event there in recognition of his birthday - which is Friday.

Martha Washington, portrayed by Pat Jordan of the Philadelphia-based American Historical Theatre, told the audience about her life and marriage to George Washington - a "simple farmer" who became the commander in chief of the Continental Army and the first president of the United States.

Martha taught children how to bow and curtsey and introduced them to the "language of the fan," which ladies could use either to fend off or encourage suitors.

She also reminded the crowd that, should they encounter her husband, not to call him "George," but "General."

After the living history presentation, many visitors to the museum, which is a Smithsonian Institution affiliate, made their way to the second floor, where an original set of George Washington's lower dentures is on display in a room devoted solely to him.

"I almost never see General Washington's teeth out of his mouth, so I thought it would be a good thing" to look, the costumed Martha Washington said to curious onlookers as she peered into the glass case.

George Washington had one natural tooth in his mouth when he was inaugurated as the nation's first president in 1789. But he did not, as myth holds, wear wooden dentures: They might appear wooden because they were stained by food and drink, but they were made of ivory from hippopotamus and elephant tusks.

A frequent sufferer of toothaches, Washington consulted nine dentists during his life who made him multiple sets of artificial teeth - most of which were uncomfortable. John Greenwood, Washington's favorite dentist, made the most comfortable pairs.

Not that they look comfortable.

Donna Farmer of Timonium, who visited the museum yesterday with her 6- and 8-year-old daughters, Danielle and Samantha, and her husband, Jim, described the false teeth as "painful-looking."

"They look like they would hurt," she said.

Erin Johns, 10, of Lansdowne explored the museum with her mother, Denise Myers-Johns, and grandmother, Nancy Myers. Not only did the fifth-grader get a lesson about the Washingtons' life, she learned to dance the minuet, with Mrs. Washington as her partner.

"It was fun because it's like part of history," she said.

Myers-Johns, who home-schools her daughter, said Erin recently finished an American history unit about the Revolutionary War, so the timing of the George Washington birthday celebration was perfect. They're planning trips to Mount Vernon and Philadelphia to learn more about the first president's life.

But Erin is sold on George and Martha.

"I like them because they did a lot of stuff that normal people wouldn't do," she said.

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