Presidential Smiles Part One

The third Monday in February is Presidents’ Day. Several states specifically honor Washington, who was born Feb. 22. In Virginia, Washington’s home state, the holiday is called George Washington’s Day. In other states, Washington and Abraham Lincoln, who was born Feb. 12, are the birthday boys who are being honored. Some states honor Washington and Thomas Jefferson – in Alabama, they’ll be celebrating “Washington and Jefferson Day” (in case you’re wondering, Jefferson was born on April 13). In Arkansas, it’s George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day. Elsewhere in the country, all of the presidents are honored.

Just for fun, for Presidents’ Day, we thought we would look at the history of how our leaders aching teeth, weird dentures, and oral health have shaped the nation in their own small ways. The dental problems of U.S. presidents have led to grumpiness, missed banquets and even, in the opinion of some experts, premature death.

George Washington (July 1, 1789 – March 4, 1797) started having problems with his teeth in his early 20s. Despite spending much money on toothbrushes, “teeth scrapers,” files, and cleaning solutions, by the mid-1700s Washington was buying human teeth. This was a common activity among the 18th century well-to-do, who presented their finds to their dentist rather than utilizing the more common animal teeth in their dentures. Washington also was known for extracting his own molars and trying to find a pair of dentures that actually fit. At his inauguration in 1789, Washington had only one working tooth. Sadly, his spring-fit dentures creaked loudly and snapped open whenever he smiled or ate, an uncomfortable experience for the president and anyone who happened to be around him.

John Adams (March 4, 1797 – March 4, 1801) also lost all of his teeth at a relatively early age but refused to wear the uncomfortable, ill-fitting dentures of the time.  Due to his lisp, he avoided talking unless he absolutely had to say something – though some historical records suggest he was simply an introvert.

John Quincy Adams (March 4, 1825 – March 4, 1829) had severe dental problems after being dosed with mercury for a mild case of smallpox. He had started smoking at age eight, which also didn’t help his teeth.

Abraham Lincoln (March 4, 1861 – April 15, 1865) lost a piece of his jaw bone during a failed tooth extraction, leading to his lifelong terror of dentists. He was among the first civilians to use chloroform as a medical anesthetic, from a bottle he acquired and administered to himself whenever he really had to see a dentist.

Andrew Johnson’s (April 15, 1865 – March 4, 1869) bad teeth- which reportedly made him drool – were probably the least of his many problems. He was the first Vice President to take over the presidency because of an assassination and the first American president to be impeached by Congress.

Ulysses S. Grant (March 4, 1869 – March 4, 1877) during the Civil War, setting a good dental example, once went out to fight for six days carrying no baggage save a toothbrush. Lamentably, in later years, Grant allowed his teeth to stain from smoking tobacco, a habit he picked up at the Battle of Shiloh. On a world tour in 1877 after two terms as president, Grant faced an added impediment. His dentures were tossed overboard by a careless steward on a ship. Until a new set could be made the General had trouble enunciating clearly and, of course, banquets were a trial. Grant`s death, in 1885 at 63, was attributed to cancer of the tongue and tonsils, aggravated by worn-out teeth.

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