Weird History
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George Washington's Teeth Weren't Wooden At All - They May Have Been The Teeth of Slaves

Updated August 22, 2019 47.6k views13 items

George Washington was one of America's richest presidents and he famously ran a whiskey distillery. But there's a dark side to the Founding Father, who owned over 300 slaves and used a loophole to keep them enslaved while he lived in Philadelphia, which had abolished slavery. It turns out there might be a further - and more bizarre - connection between Washington and slavery: the famous tale of Washington's teeth being made of wood might not be true at all, as popularly claimed. The truth behind his smile is potentially far more gruesome.

What were Washington's teeth made of? Evidence shows that America's Founding Father wore dentures made from various materials including human teeth, and there is reason to believe they were made with teeth Washington purchased off his own slaves.

The history of dentures and dentistry changed forever in the 18th century with a new practice called "tooth transplantation." The grim practice saw wealthy people buying living, healthy teeth from the poor to transplant into their own mouths. Were wooden teeth real? Yes, but only the impoverished had to use wooden teeth. The wealthy took teeth from the poor and even from slaves to make sure their smiles shined. While it's impossible to say for certain whether or not Washington had slave teeth in his own mouth, he certainly purchased them for someoneand that someone might have been the first President of the United States himself.

  • Photo: Roy Peintre / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Washington Had A Close Relationship With His Dentist And Even Gave Him His Last Tooth

    Once he became president, Washington's dentist, John Greenwood, was in charge of preparing the presidential dentures. In 1791, Greenwood mailed a set of dentures from New York to Philadelphia, the current capital of the country. Washington wrote back that the dentures "were perfectly agreeable to me," and paid the dentist $20.

    These dentures included human teeth, and they were designed to accommodate the president's single remaining tooth. Greenwood explained that a dentist should "never extract a tooth... [when] there is a possibility of saving it." When Washington lost his last real tooth, he let Greenwood keep it, and the dentist saved the tooth in a special case.

  • Photo: Internet Archive Book Images / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Experiment To Implant Teeth Involved Grafting A Human Tooth Onto A Rooster

    Medical experiments in the 18th century could be gruesome, and the experiment to determine whether human teeth could be transplanted was no different. In the 1760s, a Scottish surgeon named John Hunter performed an experiment involving a human tooth and a rooster: "I took a sound tooth from a person's head," Hunter reported, "then made a pretty deep wound with a lancet into the thick part of a cock's comb, and pressed the fang of the tooth into this wound."

    Several months later, Hunter killed the rooster and inspected the tooth, observing that it was still living and managed to adhere to the comb: "similar to the union of a tooth with the gum and sockets." The experiment convinced Hunter that it was possible to transplant a living tooth to replace a dead tooth.

  • Photo: Internet Archive Book Images / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Market For Human Teeth Preyed On Poor People

    Teeth only traveled one direction: from the mouths of the poor to the gums of the rich. As a dentist in York promised, she could "transplant teeth from the front jaws of poor lads into the heads of any Lady or Gentleman without putting both patients to any anguish."

    However, in the newly formed country of the United States, there were other sources of teeth: slaves. In 1782, one New York dentist refused to buy teeth from slaves, offering five guineas for healthy front teeth but adding "slave teeth excepted." Perhaps his theory was that wealthy white tooth-buyers wouldn't pay for slave teeth - or that the slave's owner wouldn't be happy if his "property" sold part of himself. 

  • Photo: Wellcome Images / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0

    The Tooth Transplants Could Transmit STDs

    On top of the morality of paying poor people for teeth - or worse, taking slave teeth - the procedure was risky from a health standpoint. A live tooth could transmit diseases, including syphilis, which was incurable at the time.

    Although surgeon John Hunter promised his patients that the procedure was healthy, in 1771 one of his wealthy female patients developed signs of a sexually transmitted disease after receiving a transplanted tooth. Hunter claimed that "the girl from whom the teeth were taken had all the appearance of a sound person," but the recipient still had syphilis. In fact, wealthy people were willing to risk an STD to have beautiful teeth - tooth transplants didn't die out until the 19th century, when porcelain teeth were developed.