The Man & Myth
The Trouble with Teeth
Separate fact from fiction and learn more about George Washington and his troublesome teeth. Were his dentures really made of wood?
George Washington suffered several severe illnesses during his lifetime.
Not quite three months before his death, George Washington commented in a letter to his farm manager that health was “amongst (if not the most) precious gift of Heaven,” and noted that without it “we are but little capable of business, or enjoyment.” Then sixty-seven years old, he had lived long enough and experienced illness close up—both in terms of his own health and that of his family, slaves, employees, and friends.
Although he does not appear to have been wounded during his military career, he did become so sick during the French and Indian War that he contemplated leaving, not just the army, but public life altogether. The depression caused by this illness is evident in a letter written at this period, in which he seems ready to give up on life, as well:
“I have never been able to return to my command, since I wrote to you last, my disorder at times returning obstinately upon me, in spite of the efforts of all the sons of Aesculapius [doctors], whom I have hitherto consulted. At certain periods I have been reduced to great extremity, and have now too much reason to apprehend an approaching decay, being visited with several symptoms of such a disease”
- General Washington to Colonel John Stanwix, March 4, 1758
Washington, of course, did recover and went on to have an active life, not just in the military, but also as a farmer and statesman.
When in good health, his weight was a bit over 200 pounds. As he noted in a letter when trying to find a new horse after his presidency, “The Size and strength [of the horse] must be equal to my weight, which without the saddle may be estimated at 210 lbs.”
In advice to a military colleague on the subject of health, Washington advised prevention: “I am sorry to hear of your long indisposition and repeated attacks; it may be well to nurse a little. Disorders oftentimes [sic], are easier prevented than cured, and while you are in the way to re-establish your health, (on which I congratulate you) it is better to use preventatives, than alternatives &c. &c. with which the Apothecaries [sic] Shops are replete.”
While his life was despaired of on at least two occasions during the presidency, following his retirement to Mount Vernon in 1797, Washington had an almost playful attitude about his health, as indicated by a letter from his wife to an old friend in Philadelphia, and was still accepting of his eventual death:
“I am now, by desire of the General to add a few words on his behalf; which he desires may be expressed in the terms following, that is to say, that despairing of hearing what may be said of him, if he should really go off in an Apoplectic, or any other fit, (for he thinks all fits that issue in death, are worse than a love fit, a fit of laughter, and many other kinds which he could name); he is glad to hear beforehand what will be said of him on that occasion; conceiving that nothing extra: will happen between this and then to make a change in his character for better, or for worse. And besides, as he has entered into an engagement with Mr. Morris, and several other gentlemen, not to quit the theatre of this world before the year 1800, it may be relied upon that no breach of contract shall be laid to him on that account, unless dire necessity should bring it about, maugre all his exertions to the contrary. In that case, he shall hope they would do to him as he would by them, excuse it. At present there seems to be no danger of his giving them the slip, as neither his health, nor spirits, were ever in greater flow, notwithstanding, he adds, he is descending, and has almost reached, the bottom of the hill; or in other words, the shades below.”
In 1749, George Washington's half-brother Lawrence fell ill with a cough which matured into tuberculosis by 1751. After learning of Barbados and its reputation for treating lung diseases, the Washington brothers planned a trip to the island.
Cancer was no stranger to the Washington family. Like many modern families across the world today, they experienced the agony of the disease and the inadequacy of many medical treatments.
First in war, first in peace, first in... sports? George Washington was a famously powerful athlete.
Between ten and eleven at night on December 14, 1799, George Washington passed away. He was surrounded by people who were close to him including his wife, Martha.