Bite-Sized History: John Greenwood

John Greenwood illustrated by Patrick Theaker

We’ve all heard about George Washington’s wooden teeth, but we rarely hear about the dentist behind the teeth. And if we did, we’d learn his teeth were never actually made of wood.

John Greenwood was born into dentistry. His father was the first American-born dentist, and his three brothers would go on to become dentists. Greenwood said, “HA! No way, Jose!” And then he said, “Or maybe later. I don’t know.”

After the Revolutionary War, where he was a fife player, Greenwood settled in New York, and began making machinery for nautical and mathematical purposes. His craftsmanship impressed a friend, who then recruited him to do a tooth extraction for one of his patients. He began running ads for his dental practice a few years later.

It’s a tale as old as time. Do some fifing. Make some stuff. BAM! Dentist.

Greenwood’s dentures. Seem fine. Super not-terrifying.

He put his past in mechanics to work, quickly becoming the leading denture maker of the period, and in doing so, caught the attention of the president-elect, George Washington.

At his inaugural address in 1789, George Washington had one real tooth. His dentures, made by Greenwood, consisted of lead, gold, hippopotamus tusk, and real teeth. Not wood, despite popular opinion.

Greenwood made four sets of dentures for Washington over the course of their friendship. While Greenwood was Washington’s favorite dentist, they still weren’t comfortable. Washington said the dentures were “uneasy in the mouth and bulge my lips out,” an effect you can see in this portrait by Gilbert Stuart.

 So next time you hear someone talk about George Washngton’s wooden teeth, which let’s face it, is at least four times a day, shout, “LIAR!” And then make them chop down a cherry tree. Or something.


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