The first president of the United States of America is notorious for many reasons, perhaps most unfortunately among them being his poor dental hygiene. While the widely told myth that he had wooden teeth is not true, George Washington did have dentures and the lower set of his last pair can be found at the New York Academy of Medicine along with the last real tooth that was removed from his mouth. Untapped Cities Insiders got to see these historical items up close on a recent tour of the Academy’s Rare Book Room with Anne Garner, the Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts and Arlene Shaner, the historical collections librarian.
While there are many fascinating items in the New York Academy of Medicine’s library, like a cookbook featuring ancient Roman recipes, giant illustrated 16th-century anatomy texts, and pocket sized birthing manuals, our guides couldn’t end the tour with showing us George Washington’s denture and tooth. The lower denture was created for Washington by his New York City dentist Dr. John Greenwood in 1789. It is made, not of wood, but of a hippopotamus ivory base and actual human teeth! Some of the teeth may have been Washington’s own that were pulled out and some may have been purchased from slaves.
You can see that there is a large hole near the back of the denture and that was to accomodate Washington’s last remaining tooth, a bicuspid on the left side of his mouth. In 1794 Dr. Greenwood finally had to yanked that tooth out as well, a procedure which could not have been pleasant in the 18th century. At some point, Washington’s denture and tooth came into Dr. Greenwood’s possession. The dentist put the tooth inside a charm attached to his gold pocket watch.
An inscription on the charm that contains the tooth reads, “In New York, 1790, Greenwood made President George Washington a whole set of teeth, the enclosed tooth is the last tooth that grew in his head.” You can also see, if you can stomach looking closely at the denture, engraved on the gum line it says, “This was Great Washington’s teeth by J. Greenwood.”
The watch and denture were passed down through the male descendants of Greenwood’s family until the 1930s when there were two sisters left to inherit the pieces. The sisters were convinced by another dentist, who was a fellow at the Academy of Medicine, to donate the artifacts to the institution where they have been stored ever since.
Portrait of Dr. Greenwood
New York Academy of Medicine’s Library began with only a three-volume set in January 1847 and was originally intended only for the use of the Medical College of the University of New York City Fellows. The Library eventually opened its doors to the general public in October 1878. Over the centuries, the library has continued to grow and amass a collection of around 32,000 rare books, dating mostly from the 15th through the 18th centuries. The collection also contains manuscripts, archives, pamphlets, ephemera, and visual materials on a wide range of subjects from alchemy and botany to natural and New York City history. To see Washington’s tooth for yourself, or any of the amazing books and artifacts in the Academy’s extensive collection, you can make an appointment to visit. If you are looking to find more pieces of Washington, you can see a lock of his hair, a piece of his coffin and another tooth at the historic Fraunces Tavern.
Become an Untapped Cities Insider to join more behind-the-scenes tours, like our trip to the New York Academy of Medicine, and special events all year round. Check out some past and upcoming events here!