The Trouble with Teeth
Washington’s failing teeth were a source of regular suffering throughout his entire life.
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George Washington was often concerned he would die young. His father died at 48 and his favorite sibling, Lawrence, was only in his early thirties when he passed away.
Many of Washington’s siblings died even younger than Lawrence, including his sister Mildred who was three and half-sister Jane who lived about 12 years. During the 18th century, men of Washington’s class lived on average to their late forties or early fifties whereas women were at much greater risk due to pregnancy and often did not live as long.1
To try to prevent an early death, Washington exercised, ate and drank moderately, attempted to get enough sleep, and avoided tobacco.2 Even with these healthy habits, Washington was afflicted with a number of serious illness, but he did live to be 67.
Medicine during the 18th century was significantly different from today. Germs, infections, diseases, and the importance of sanitation were not understood, which often meant that only symptoms were treated. Injuries or illness that would seem minor today could easily result in death. As the primary caregiver, women were usually knowledgeable in some 18th-century medicine from creating rubs and herbal remedies to delivering babies.3 There were also a number of common treatments often performed without doctors, including bloodletting, purging, blistering, and sweating.4
Washington tried to educate himself on health and medicine. In his library at the time of his death, there were nine medical books.5 Washington also ordered a number of drugs from England. His order in 1759 included:
Washington frequently ordered bark, which came from the bark of a cinchona tree and was used to treat fevers. Bark became a favorite of Washington to treat malarial fevers, which he experienced many times.7
Many doctors treated Washington throughout his life, but Dr. James Craik was probably his favorite. Washington met Craik in the 1750s during the French and Indian War and persuaded him to move near Mount Vernon. Craik treated Washington for most of his life and was with him when he died.
Washington described smallpox as a potentially greater threat than "the Sword of the Enemy".8 Historically, it killed over a quarter of those infected.9 Smallpox was typically transported to 18th-century America via immigrants and enslaved people. Unlike in Europe, the majority of the American population led relatively isolated lives on farms and plantations. Outside of Boston, Philadelphia, and Charleston, there was little chance of getting the disease and prior to 1747, there were no smallpox epidemics in Virginia.10
Washington was one of the few Virginians exposed to smallpox prior to the American Revolution. He and his half-brother Lawrence visited Barbados in 1751 to try and ease Lawrence’s tuberculosis. Not long after arriving the brothers visited Lawrence’s uncle, Gedney Clarke. Washington was hesitant to go since Mrs. Clarke was suffering from smallpox. Just a couple weeks later, Washington noted he had been “strongly attacked with the small Pox”.11 For three weeks, Washington was bedridden and treated by local physician Dr. John Lanaham. Washington’s exposure to the disease meant he was immune from smallpox for the rest of his life, which was imperative during the American Revolution.12Learn More about Washington's Trip
Washington became very sick during the French and Indian War while serving as aide-de-camp to British General Edward Braddock. In June 1755, Washington wrote his brother, “I was sized w[i]t[h] violt Fevers & P[ai]ns in my h[ea]d”; he had contracted dysentery.13 The pain was so severe that Washington had to travel lying down in a wagon.
About two weeks later, he was recovering as Braddock’s forces reached Fort Duquesne. Washington attempted to mount a horse and ride to the front. However, he found it too painful and had to strap on cushions to ride. Washington fought through the pain and when Braddock fell during battle, he took control.14 Washington recovered at Fort Cumberland, Maryland and while doing so wrote his mother a letter describing his health during the battle:
I was not half recovered from a violent illness that had confin’d me to my Bed, and a Waggon, for above 10 Days; I am still in a weak and Feeble condn which induced me to halt here 2 or 3 Days in hopes of recovg a little Strength.15
It would take another few weeks for Washington to fully recovered. In mid-August he wrote, “I am happily recover’d from the disorder which brought me to so low an ebb by a sickness of near 5 Weeks conti[nuance]e yet, my strength is not returnd to me.”16Learn More
Health was not just something Washington dealt with, but it affected his entire family. Martha Washington wrote, “sickness is to be expected.”17 She was constantly dealing with sick family and friends and would outlive all four of her children. During one of Washington’s illnesses, Mrs. Washington wrote a friend, “The sevear illness with which the President was attacked some weeks ago absorbed every other consideration/ in my care and anxiety for him…”18
Washington did what he could to keep his family healthy. In 1771, without telling Mrs. Washington’s, he had her son inoculated against smallpox. A few years later, in 1776, Mrs. Washington was inoculated. After her success, she encouraged others to have the procedure.19
Soon after his appointment as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, Washington encouraged Congress to create a medical department within the army.21 He also immediately had to deal with smallpox, which became more widespread during the war. Between 1775 and 1782, the disease killed at least one hundred thousand people.22 Soldiers arriving from England and Germany frequently brought the virus to America. Moreover, recruits from all over North America joined the Continental Army and many who had never been exposed to smallpox suddenly were.23
Within days of taking command of the army, Washington wrote to assure the president of the Continental Congress that he had been "particularly attentive to the least Symptoms of the small Pox," quarantining anyone suspected of having the disease.24 Washington further promised that he would "continue the utmost Vigilance against this most dangerous enemy."25 John Adams wrote his wife, Abigail, that smallpox “has done Us more harm than British armies”.26 Smallpox plagued the Continental Army as well as the civilian population and epidemics broke out in major cities including Boston and Philadelphia.27
Washington believed in the effectiveness of inoculation and eventually instituted a system where new recruits were inoculated with smallpox immediately upon enlistment.28 Inoculation involved deliberate exposure to smallpox, usually through an incision made on the arm. This still resulted in a case of smallpox, but usually with milder symptoms and a greater chance of survival, with immunity as the end goal. Many in Colonial America opposed inoculation because it could cause an outbreak if the inoculated person was not properly quarantined while ill. Inoculation was heavily regulated and banned outright in some places. Combined with the procedure’s expense, it was a rare practice in America.29
The small pox has made such Head in every Quarter that I find it impossible to keep it from spreading thro’ the whole Army in the natural way. I have therefore determined, not only to innoculate all the Troops now here, that have not had it, but shall order Docr Shippen to innoculate the Recuits as fast as they come in to Philadelphia. They will lose no time, because they will go thro’ the disorder while their cloathing Arms and accoutrements are getting ready.30
Washington faced many challenges as he inoculated his army.
Washington suffered from dental problems most of his life. According to his diary, when Washington was 24 he paid five shillings to a “Doctr Watson” to remove one of his teeth. Later in his life, Washington made regular reference to aching teeth, lost teeth, inflamed gums, and ill-fitting dentures. Washington also bought toothbrushes, teeth scrapers, denture files, toothache medication, and cleaning solutions throughout his life.20
Washington had a number of serious health scares while president. The first occurred less than two months after his inauguration. Washington described the illness as, “a very large and painful tumor on the protuberance of my thigh—this prevents me from walking or sitting”.31 After weeks of treatments, Dr. Samuel Bard and his father, Dr. John Bard, removed Washington’s tumor on June 17, 1789. It took six weeks for the incision site to heal, during which Washington mainly laid on his right side.32 A similar, but milder, tumor reappeared two years later. Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison, “The President is indisposed with the same blind tumour, & in the same place, which he had the year before last in New York.”33
Then in the spring of 1790, Washington became very ill. This time he was inflicted by influenza and pneumonia, which affected both his hearing and eyesight. At one point, William Maclay reported that Washington had “nearly lost his hearing.”34
On May 16, Theodore Sedgwick noted “About five oclock in the afternoon yesterday, the physicians disclosed that they had no hopes of his recovery.”35 However, overnight Washington began to sweat and by morning, the doctors believed he was out of immediate danger. After recovering, Washington wrote the following about his health:
I have already had within less than a year, two severe attacks—the last worse than the first—a third more than probable will put me to sleep with my fathers; at what distance this may be I know not. Within the last twelve months I have undergone more, and severer sickness than thirty preceding years afflicted me with, put it altogether—I have abundant reason however to be thankful that I am so well recovered; though I still feel the remains of the violent affection of my lungs—The cough, pain in my breast, and shortness in breathing not having entirely left me36
Disease ran rampant in the summer and fall in major cities so almost anyone who could left, in an attempt to stay well. This was true in both New York and Philadelphia, which housed the capitol during Washington’s presidency. In the summer of 1793, there was a terrible outbreak of yellow fever that killed almost 10 percent of Philadelphia’s population. For months, those with means, including Washington and most government officials, went to the countryside. Their departure and the disease severely interrupted the city’s social, economic, and political life.37
On December 12, 1799, Washington was out on horseback supervising farm activities while it was snowing. Upon returning home, he did not change out of his wet clothes and went straight to dinner. By the next morning, Washington had a sore throat. His conditioned worsened despite multiple doctors attending to him. Washington tried drinking a mixture of molasses, vinegar, and butter. He also gargled vinegar and sage tea and his blood was let multiple times. Late in the evening on December 14, 1799, at the age of 67, George Washington died of an infection in his throat.38Learn More
Cancer was no stranger to the Washington family. Like many modern families across the world, they experienced the agony of the disease and the inadequacy of many medical treatments.Learn More