George Washington, the Revolutionary War hero and first President of the United States, endured occasionally severe pain and discomfort for much of his life from decaying teeth and poorly-fitted dentures, which contrary to popular legend were never made from wood. By the time he ascended to the office of the Presidency in 1789, all but one of his natural teeth had rotted and been removed as hopeless. Early and repeated exposure to heavy doses of mercurous chloride, known popularly as “calomel,” probably contributed to this slow destruction. Calomel was used at the time in quack concoctions as an “anti-bilious” purgative to treat a spectrum of vague medical symptoms.
Washington battled for thirty-five years to save his teeth with regular brushing, dentifrices and mouthwashes, but the poor medical knowledge of the era lead him to questionable remedies such as highly abrasive pumice-based toothpowders that wore away his teeth enamel and hastened the day of reckoning. Some historians have speculated that his well-known hair-trigger temper arose from the dark tides of this unending, agonizing war against an invisible enemy. Successive portraits of George Washington show a progressive puffiness of his cheeks that likely was provoked by incessant dental infections and exacerbated by bulky dentures.
Much the same fate held for the other citizens of this new nation, when they could afford dental attention at all. This state of nature was the norm. Broad knowledge and acceptance of the germ theory of disease was not to arrive for another century. Miasmas and vapors were feared, and good nutrition was very much a black art. Yellowed, decaying and outright missing teeth were common even at early ages. Dental care for most consisted of herbal breath fresheners and copious ingestion of alcoholic beer or spirits to dull the pain of broken or rotting teeth. Teeth either survived this or not, doing best in genetically gifted individuals. Thomas Jefferson, the third President, noted at the age of 75 that he had retained all of his teeth, although the veracity of this claim is perhaps in question.
More than two hundred years later, modern dentistry has shed the lingering stench of quackery and acquired an impressive arsenal of weapons against the premature loss of our pearly whites. Teeth can be kept healthy and whole for much longer in most people, perhaps for a lifetime. Good genetics still count, but the every modern dentist possesses the tools and methods with which to even the balance greatly. Education and commercial impetus have led to the broad adoption of good dental hygiene such as daily brushing with soft-bristled toothbrushes and fluoridated toothpastes, at least in developed countries. Flossing remains a relatively neglected habit, but dental authorities push on relentlessly in the hope of abolishing plaque at last.
Another recent development has been the prevalence of affordable dental insurance plans. Such insurance has grown in popularity, offering reduced-cost cleanings and other procedures in addition to coverage of the potentially high costs of emergency dental care and reconstruction. The peace of mind from this coverage has been an underrated factor in encouraging full attention to dental health.
Blake Fields has had his fare share of dental problems. Knowing where to find affordable coverage, and how to make it work for you has become a trade of mine.