The True George Washington: Physique: Vision, Hearing, and Teeth

Updated February 28, 2017 | Infoplease Staff

Vision, Hearing, and Teeth

The acute attacks of illness already touched upon by no means represent all the physical debility and suffering of Washington's life. During the Revolution his sight became poor, so that in 1778 he first put on glasses for reading, and Cobb relates that in the officers' meeting in 1783, which Washington attended In order to check an appeal to arms, "When the General took his station at the desk or pulpit, which, you may recollect, was in the Temple, he took out his written address from his coat pocket and then addressed the officers in the following manner: 'Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray, but almost blind, in the service of my country.' This little address, with the mode and manner of delivering it, drew tears from [many] of the officers."

Nor did his hearing remain entirely good. Maclay noted, at one of the President's dinners in 1789, that "he seemed in more good humor than I ever saw him, though he was so deaf that I believe he heard little of the conversation," and three years later the President is reported as saying to Jefferson that he was "sensible, too, of a decay of his hearing, perhaps his other faculties might fall off and he not be sensible of it."

Washington's teeth were even more troublesome. Mercer in 1760 alluded to his showing, when his mouth was open, "some defective teeth," and as early as 1754 one of his teeth was extracted. From this time toothache, usually followed by the extraction of the guilty member, became almost of yearly recurrence, and his diary reiterates, with verbal variations, "indisposed with an aching tooth, and swelled and inflamed gum," while his ledger contains many items typified by "To Dr. Watson drawing a tooth 5/." By 1789 he was using false teeth, and he lost his last tooth in 1795. At first these substitutes were very badly fitted, and when Stuart painted his famous picture he tried to remedy the malformation they gave the mouth by padding under the lips with cotton. The result was to make bad worse, and to give, in that otherwise fine portrait, a feature at once poor and unlike Washington, and for this reason alone the Sharpless miniature, which in all else approximates so closely to Stuart's masterpiece, is preferable. In 1796 Washington was furnished with two sets of "sea-horse" (i.e., hippopotamus) ivory teeth, and they were so much better fitted that the distortion of the mouth ceased to be noticeable.

Sources +