In honor of Presidents’ Day, we take a look at 10 interesting presidential dental stories. Some of these deal with smiles while others deal with early cases of oral health problems and some original attempts to provide dental care.
1. The White House’s Dental Op
According to Wikipedia, there’s a dental operatory set up in the basement of the White House, located under the North Portico. The White House has had a dental office since the Hoover administration and President Barack Obama told Jimmy Kimmel he first learned about it when he thought he had a loose cap. “Got the whole chair, everything is all there set up in the basement,” he said. (This image is what the room looked like in 1948, when Harry S. Truman was president.)
Since this incident happened more than 30 years prior to the White House’s addition of a dental operatory, Grover Cleveland did not have the luxury of heading down to the basement when he needed some major oral care done. In the 1890s, while he was dealing with a country entering a depression, personally, he was dealing with a bump in his mouth that had formed and was diagnosed as cancer. Not wanting to alarm the nation, in June of 1893 he boarded a yacht in New York Harbor with 6 doctors. In a 90-minute surgery, surgeons removed the cancerous tumor, 5 teeth and part of his upper left jaw. Reportedly his only anesthesia was laughing gas and ether. After recovering at his summer home, Cleveland was later fitted with a rubber prosthesis that helped him with his speech.
Paul Revere may not have been a president, but the early patriot staked his claim in history with his famous horseback ride, which was just one of his many achievements. In 1774 and the spring of 1775 Revere was employed by the Boston Committee of Correspondence and the Massachusetts Committee of Safety as an express rider to carry news, messages, and important documents as far away as New York and Philadelphia, according to The Paul Revere House. His legend grew after his nighttime ride to alert the colonial militia during the Revolutionary War, even if many historians have determined that his famous quote—"The British are coming!”—was fabricated. Even so, his skills were many. While he was a silversmith by trade, Revere also was an amateur dentist and somewhat of an artist. He used his skills as a craftsman to wire dentures made of walrus ivory or animal teeth into his patients’ mouths. He later identified the body of his friend Joseph Warren 9 months after the well-known revolutionary died during the Battle of Bunker Hill by recognizing wiring he had used on a false tooth. In the process, he unwittingly became the first person to practice forensic dentistry in the United States in 1776.
According to multiple reports, on February 20, 1954, Dwight D. Eisenhower was eating a chicken wing when the cap on one of his front teeth popped off. The President spent the night at an emergency dental appointment, and that’s when things got real interesting. Conspiracy theorists claimed the unexpected trip was caused by a variety of false reports, one saying he had died of a heart attack while others implied a UFO cover up involving a secret meeting with aliens at Edwards Air Force Base. The theory still lives on with some since Eisenhower’s dentist for this emergency treatment has since died and records of the visit have not been officially documented.
The country’s 46th president has smiled a lot since the November election results became official and in the process he’s regularly flashed a set a white teeth that have some envious that a man of his age has such good-looking teeth. Opponents of Biden’s and some members of the media have questioned what type of veneers or crowns he may have in his mouth, but few question that the new president has an impressive smile for a 77-year-old.
We’ve all heard the tales about George Washington’s wooden dentures, but the truth is his many pairs of dentures were constructed with many different materials, including hippopotamus ivory, bone, gold wire, copper screws, lead and even human teeth, according to some reports. Mount Vernon, Washington’s estate, says the first president’s troublesome teeth made him self-conscious and reluctant to speak in public, but his oral condition may have helped his family’s. His wife, Martha, who also had a partial denture, reportedly urged her children and grandchildren to tend to the care of their teeth. His dentures are on display at the National Museum of Dental History in Baltimore, Maryland.
Thomas Jefferson is best known for his roles in authoring the Declaration of Independence and helping grow the country with the Louisiana Purchase. But much also has been documented about his great oral health. It is reported that at age 81 he stated he had only lost a single adult tooth in his lifetime. He was fastidious about his health and letters and journals—some archived at the Library of Congress—indicate he may have been ahead of his time in terms of understanding the positive impact that toothbrushes and toothpicks could have on oral health at that time.
Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt, was the 26th President of the United States and since he was often photographed and illustrated with a big grin, he is regularly referred to as the first president that smiled. Sadly, however, he did experience serious, chronic, oral and systemic health problems and when he died suddenly at the age of 60, it is reported that physicians and dentists alike felt oral sepsis played a role in his death. While there may not be significant scientific merit to these claims, it was common practice early in the 20th century to extract all “bad teeth” to reduce the risk of possible risky infections.
John Adams followed George Washington as the nation’s second president and like Washington, he also had poor dental health for much of his life. Many reports indicate Adams had a great love of sweets, but his habit of regularly vomiting surely didn’t help matters any. According to an article in the New York State Dental Journal and published on pubmed.gov, “His pernicious habit of inducing vomiting to treat various bodily ills, coupled with a great love of sweets, led to the loss of his teeth, which he stubbornly refused to replace with dentures.”
According to legend during the Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant went into battle for 6 days and all he packed to bring along was a toothbrush. Talk about someone really ready to battle decay. Sadly, the 18th president was known to enjoy cigars and was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1884 and died the following year.