Mistakes in Dental History

Today’s dental history tale is about mistakes in dental history. The path to dental care as we know it today was not a smooth one. The 18th century provides several examples. America may have won the War for Independence in 1776, but we didn’t win any awards for dental prowess back then.


Blacksmiths often served double-duty as dentists in early America, meaning you could have your tooth filled and your horse shoed at the same time!

George Washington

And of course, George Washington is famous for his teeth (or lack thereof). He actually never owned wooden dentures. That is an urban legend. Saliva is corrosive and would have turned the wood to pulp pretty quickly. But he did own four sets of dentures made of hippopotamus ivory carved to fit. Some of the dentures were actually constructed of human teeth (not George’s though!)

Washington had bouts with serious illnesses like malaria, dysentery and dengue fever, then known as breakbone fever. Doctors who treated him for these illnesses used calomel in heavy doses. Unfortunately, this was a mistake because the calomel (mercurous chloride) causes destruction of teeth. Washington’s dental problems began when he was just 22, and over the next 35 years, he lost all his teeth. When he was inaugurated in 1789, he had only one natural tooth.


Another colonial dental mistake was the ingredients used for toothpowders. Our ancestors had the right idea of keeping teeth clean, but these early powders were made of very abrasive materials like pumice stone and even burnt bread crusts. They were quite abrasive and literally destroyed tooth enamel.

Mouthwashes made of salt, wine and vinegar were also used and further abraded the teeth.


Denture construction of the day also left a lot to be desired. In France, in 1774, two Frenchmen (a pharmacist and a dentist), designed the first set of porcelain dentures. But Washington never had them, and the dentures he had were ill-fitting and clumsy. Springs were used to secure the dentures and they likely made Washington’s cheeks puff out and altered his appearance. The dentures were very uncomfortable and Washington was in constant pain, and was quick-tempered, likely driven by the pain. In fact, Washington didn’t even give a second inaugural speech because of the pain. Late in life, he only ate soft foods and smiling and talking were very uncomfortable.

The dentures also made his lips look sunken in, and in the famous Gilbert Stuart portrait of Washington, the artist reportedly packed cotton inside Washington’s mouth to give him a more natural look for the 1797 painting.

Washington certainly had a long painful struggle with oral health. We’ve come a long way, and today’s modern dentistry is painless!

Leave a Comment