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Mount Vernon Exhibits George Washington’s Presidential Dentures & His Last Tooth, Encased as a Souvenir by his Dentist

Tue, 10/13/2009

Rare objects on Loan from The New York Academy of Medicine
For Immediate Release
Digital images available

Media Contact:
Melissa Wood (703) 799-5203
mwood@mountvernon.org

Mount Vernon Exhibits George Washington’s Presidential Dentures & His Last Tooth, Encased as a Souvenir by his Dentist

Mount Vernon, VA - The lower half of one of the nation’s most famous dentures and George Washington’s last remaining tooth will be on display at Mount Vernon starting October 15, appropriately during National Dental Hygiene Month.

On loan from The New York Academy of Medicine, the denture was the first of several dentures that John Greenwood made for Washington and is dated 1789, the year that Washington took his oath of office in New York City.  The denture is engraved with: Under jaw. This is Great Washington’s teeth by J. Greenwood.  First one made by J. Greenwood, Year 1789. Carved from hippopotamus ivory, the denture contains real human teeth fixed in the ivory by means of brass screws.  The denture, which was anchored on the one remaining tooth in Washington’s mouth, has a hole which fit snugly around the tooth and probably contributed to the loosening and eventual loss of that tooth.

When Washington’s last tooth was either extracted or fell out, he sent it to Greenwood.  To protect it from breakage, Greenwood had the invaluable relic encased in a specially made gold and glass mounting which he had engraved:  In New York 1790 Jn Greenwood made Pres Geo Washington a whole set of teeth.  The enclosed tooth is the last one which grew in his head.

This mounting became one of the elements of Dr. Greenwood’s watch fob, which also includes a button with a profile of Washington made from the same die used to cast a set of gold buttons for General Lafayette, a seal of gold and stag-horn made by Greenwood and engraved by Rockwell & Co. Jewelers in New York City, and a watch-key of gold and steel also made by Greenwood and engraved by Rockwell & Co. Jewelers.

Washington suffered terribly throughout his life from problems with his teeth, and many sets of dentures were made to accommodate his loss of teeth and the increasing discomfort occasioned by ill-fitting dentures. There is only one complete set of dentures that have survived. They are owned by Mount Vernon and will be part of a new traveling exhibition entitled Discover the Real George Washington: New Views from Mount Vernon. This lower denture and Dr. Greenwood’s watch from The New York Academy of Medicine will be displayed at Mount Vernon through 2013 in the Donald W. Reynolds Education Center’s gallery called A Leader’s Smile, which also features a video produced by The History Channel showing how dentures were made in the 18th century, several dental tools used at Mount Vernon, and a timeline chronicling Washington’s dental history from the loss of his first tooth at the age of 24 to the manufacture of his last set of dentures in 1798.

George Washington’s tooth loss was not caused by poor hygiene, but most likely resulted from a combination of genetic factors and a lack of advancement in medical techniques. Dr. Greenwood, a member of a prominent New York family, was quite ahead of his time in his dental practice.  He extracted teeth and utilized them in the manufacture of dentures, but he also experimented with implantation, a procedure which is now commonplace in dental practice. Unfortunately for Dr. Greenwood, the 18th century’s lack of antibiotics and any understanding of germ theory and antisepsis doomed any such experiments to failure.  He also designed a mechanism for removing decay from teeth by means of a drill which was driven by a spinning wheel.  The lack of precision machining in the 18th century seriously worked against Greenwood’s efforts and made such apparatus a very painful alternative to extraction.

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About The New York Academy of Medicine

The New York Academy of Medicine (NYAM) has been advancing the health of people in cities since 1847. An independent organization, NYAM addresses the health challenges facing the world’s urban populations through interdisciplinary approaches to innovative research, education, community engagement and policy leadership. The NYAM Library serves as the only medical library in New York City open to the public. It is one of the largest medical libraries in the United States, which boasts large, and in many cases, exclusive holdings of primary source materials relating to clinical medicine, disease, and public health in the United States. Its Americana collection includes 85 percent of the books, pamphlets, periodicals, and broadsides of medical interest printed in North America between the late 16th century and the early 19th century.