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The Gruesome History of Dentistry as Told Through Washington’s Dentures

In the 1700s dentistry had advanced to the degree of dentures, making it possible for people to appear as though they still had their teeth. A curious set of objects at the Rare Books and Manuscripts holdings of the New York Academy of Medicine tells the sordid tale of what dentistry was like in the 18th century through a set of objects relating to George Washington and his dentist, Dr. John Greenwood. The doctor treated Washington when he moved to New York to begin his presidency.

Greenwood kept a huge number of objects relating to the care of teeth and was so proud of serving Washington that he inscribed it on the bottom portion of the hippopotamus ivory dentures he made for the POTUS. This was but one of many pairs of dentures Washington had made over the years.

Contrary to popular belief Washington never had a set of wooden dentures, but the pair he wore that’s now in the collection at the academy contains not only hippo ivory, but also real human teeth. Curator, Anne Garner, says mysteriously that no one knows where the human teeth come from. But, she then goes on to explain that Washington did at some point buy teeth from slaves.

It’s a horrific reminder that in the early days of modern dentistry human teeth, often acquired from those who died young and didn’t yet suffer from tooth decay, were common in dentures.

Washington’s dentures were held on with metal springs which couldn’t have been comfortable. And there was one drilled out hole in the bottom dentures, which made space for Washington’s last tooth. Both the dentures and the final tooth (which was eventually pulled and then attached to a pocket watch fob and encased in glass) are in the collection, as well many of Greenwood’s instruments- all donated by his descendants. Have a look at these fascinating items in the video below.

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