Spring 2017

All the Presidents’ Teeth

Who didn’t floss? Who was a bruxer? And who could have used some whitening strips? Our faculty give some historical smiles a thorough checkup.

By Helene Ragovin

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Illustrations: Betsy Hayes

When George Washington took the oath of office in 1789, he had but one tooth remaining in his mouth. Which probably explains the legend of his wooden teeth. Washington did indeed have many sets of dentures, but according to the historians at his landmark home, Mount Vernon, they were actually made of various combinations of bone, hippopotamus ivory, human teeth, brass screws, lead and gold metal wire. They were also likely responsible for his jaw-jutting, tight-lipped appearance in so many portraits.

But Washington aside, the history of presidential oral health has received relatively scant attention over the years. There are, however, some things that we do know, courtesy of the American Dental Association, Journal of Endodontics Research and Journal of Historical Dentistry:

John Adams refused to wear dentures as he lost his teeth in old age, and developed a lisp as a result.

Abraham Lincoln had an aversion to dentists, perhaps because one of them broke the future president’s jawbone while pulling a tooth in 1841.

Dwight Eisenhower lost a crown while eating chicken one night in 1954. His subsequent disappearance for a hush-hush trip to the dentist led to a false news report that he had died of a heart attack, as well as an allegation that he had been meeting secretly with aliens from outer space.

Ulysses S. Grant is said to have carried a toothbrush into battle. Whether or not that’s true, he did die of throat cancer in 1885.

Grover Cleveland was diagnosed in 1893 with an oral cancer on the roof of his mouth. With the country slipping into a depression, Cleveland feared that the news of his cancer would further rattle the economy, so he secretly underwent surgery on a yacht in the middle of Long Island Sound—the public was told he was on a fishing trip. Along with the tumor, surgeons removed five of the president’s teeth and part of his upper left jaw. He was later fitted with a rubber prosthesis to help him speak normally. (Cleveland and his aides also worked to discredit a reporter who had gotten wind of the story—the truth didn’t come out until almost 25 years later, when one of the surgeons finally confessed.)

As our newest administration in Washington got underway, Tufts Dental Medicine sat down with three faculty members from the School of Dental Medicine to review the smiles of some 20th- and 21st-century presidents. Here’s what Alan Epstein, D82, Richard McNulty, D79, and Charles Rankin, D79, DG86, had to say:


Theodore Roosevelt 

It looks like he might have been a bruxer. Oh, yeah, a huge bruxer! When he was charging up San Juan Hill, you know he was clenching his teeth. Those are very worn-down teeth, to go with that gritty personality. Lots of wear on those boys. But they were his own teeth! I don’t think he flossed, either. He had some periodontal disease; look at the spacing between 7 and 8—that’s got to be from perio; he’s got some bone loss there.


Franklin Roosevelt

Looks like he had a partial denture on the left-hand side. What about that canine, number 11? It looks short—looks like a partial. They all had bad teeth in FDR’s day. Look at 9 and 10, all overlapped—11 is buccal. It’s just all snaggly toothed.


Harry Truman 

He was a man of the people—you can tell by his imperfect teeth. He had two really dark teeth, numbers 8 and 10, which might have been endo-related. Could be necrotic teeth, definitely got a couple of dead teeth.


John Kennedy

He had better teeth than some members of his family. What’s amazing is that
bicuspid extractions were real big in those days. But he has his bicuspids, and they’re all lined up nicely.


Richard Nixon 

He didn’t have bad teeth. Is that a crown on number 9? It’s a slightly different shade from number 8. Actually, all four of his anteriors look kind of weird, kind of square. Maybe that’s an old acrylic-type crown on number 6. He had a thin upper lip.


Gerald Ford 

What’s wrong with Ford? He had terrible teeth. Definitely a bad bruxer. Is that tartar between his teeth? A stain? Did he not floss? Looks like he had a little diastema, and they bonded it. For somebody who lived in the modern era, he didn’t get great dental care. He was a football player—kids back in those days, if they chipped their teeth at young ages, often they were bonded. It doesn’t look like crowns. All those black spaces—he had periodontal disease, I’m sure.


Jimmy Carter

I think he’s had some dental work done. Looks like he’s had some cosmetic work done on numbers 6 through 11. And done very well. Beautiful smile.


Ronald Reagan

He has a funny smile line—see how it dips down on the left-hand side? I always thought he had dentures, but looking at it, I don’t think they’re dentures; it looks like they’re his real teeth. Nice teeth for an old man. No wear pattern, not worn down, nothing. A crooked smile, but it’s a nice smile.


George W. Bush

His teeth are yellow. He could have used some whitening strips. Not much in the way of crowns. What you see is what you get.


Bill Clinton

Looks like he bruxes, too. Definitely some malocclusion—notice how number 10 is so lingualized compared to numbers 7, 8 and 9? Not the best-looking smile.

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