5 Facts about the Founding Fathers’ Teeth

Jul 01, 2015, by Dr. Becky Coats

This weekend we are celebrating our nation’s independence (though not Texas, which has its own independence day: March 2). But before you go out to enjoy fireworks on July 4, take some time to think about the men that made this great nation of ours possible.

Although they are often portrayed as legends, the Founding Fathers were actually men, possessed of blood, sweat, and . . . teeth! And these teeth often resulted in tears for them.

George Washington’s Dentures

Founding Fathers TeethThe story of George Washington’s poor dental health is well known, and hopefully by now we all know that his famous dentures weren’t made of wood. Instead, his dentures were made of ivory, hippopotamus teeth, and even human teeth, which came from fallen soldiers (what would later be known as “Waterloo teeth”) and slaves.

Although Washington’s dentures were state of the art and were constantly being upgraded by some of the best craftsmen in the country, they were uncomfortable and didn’t support the lower face the way our Denture Fountain of Youth® does–he had to have his face stuffed with cotton for portraits.

Thomas Jefferson’s Perfect Teeth

In contrast to his fellow revolutionaries Washington and Franklin (see below), Thomas Jefferson had remarkably good teeth for the period. In 1824, Daniel Webster wrote of an 81-year-old Jefferson, “His mouth is well formed and still filled with teeth; it is strongly compressed, bearing an expression of contentment and benevolence.” Jefferson himself said that same year he had lost only one tooth to age.

His secret? Fastidious oral hygiene–he was a toothbrushing pioneer. Jefferson’s diaries note that he regularly purchased toothbrushes, and was careful to make sure the bristles weren’t too hard (which can contribute to receding gums) and didn’t have sponges, which can harbor more bacteria (like some electric toothbrushes). Jefferson also made regular visits to the dentists, and never went anywhere without a toothpick (he had a fine silver case made for them).

A Pound of Cure Led to Woe for Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin is famous for many pieces of wisdom, but he should also be known for his inability to follow his own advice. In particular, if he had followed “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” he might have kept his teeth.

But because Franklin couldn’t give up his lavish dining habits, he was beset by gout and kidney stones. Some say that it was to treat the latter that Franklin took mercury pills (though others say it was for psoriasis). What all agree, though, is that the mercury pills caused Franklin to lose several teeth.

Paul Revere, CSI

Okay, so Paul Revere technically doesn’t qualify as a crime scene investigator any more than he qualifies as an official Founding Father, but the original Midnight Rider holds the record as the first person to use dental restorations to identify military remains.

The family of Major General Joseph Warren–the very man who assigned Revere to watch for “one if by land two if by sea”–asked Revere to help them find Gen. Warren’s body, which was buried in a mass grave by the British after he was killed at the Battle of Bunker Hill.

It seemed hopeless–the remains were all badly decayed by the time the rebels took control of the area–but then Revere identified a partial denture that Warren wore to replace two missing teeth. Revere knew the denture because he’d made it himself. In addition to being a silversmith, Revere made dentures, having learned from one of the top pioneers in the country, who would later make dentures for Washington.

“Give Me Liberty or Give Me a Toothache!”

Another important figure in the American Revolution was Patrick Henry, whose inflammatory rhetoric helped light a fire under the Revolution. He doesn’t actually have a true story about his teeth, but there is an apocryphal one that says he died of a toothache. Although it is possible to die of an infected tooth if you put off a root canal too long, Henry died of stomach cancer. It’s unclear where this story comes from, though Henry may have complained about a toothache shortly before he died.

As you enjoy your 4th of July festivities, keep our Founding Fathers in mind, particularly Thomas Jefferson. And follow his example, lest you end up like George Washington.